Long Beach Offers Collective Punishment

How the city's botched marijuana lottery screwed its winners and losers alike

Parks declined to take Violas on as a lawyer. Sund did not respond to an interview request. In an interview at his office in downtown Long Beach, Violas stated that while he maintains "cordial" relationships with Sund and other city officials, he has never made any such guarantees: "I categorically deny that I've ever promised any client that payment of money to a city official will result in favorable treatment."

Mike Genera [1] refused to pay the fee to enter the lottery; soon after, the city began sending code-enforcement officers to his collective, threatening his landlord, and issuing him up to $50,000 in fines over a period of several months. The police also showed up and filed misdemeanor charges—violating the city's marijuana ordinance—against his security guard and manager. "They used every kind of tactic that you can imagine," Genara says. "It was just so overwhelming."

Dallas Alexander, who operates the Dank City Collective, also paid only a token fee of $500 to the city, instead of the $15,000. "I was summarily rejected," he says. Not long thereafter, the police raided his shop while he was on his way to work. "They broke down my door with no warrant," he says. "They basically robbed me. They took whatever they could in money. I saw Erik Sund walk out with a bag of my merchandise. They arrested three of my people who were working, but they were out in a couple of hours."

Josh Howard
Miguel Vasconcellos
Josh Howard
Long Beach's favorite frenemy, John Morris
Miguel Vasconcellos
Long Beach's favorite frenemy, John Morris

Until she voluntarily closed the dispensary late last year, Katherine Aldrich operated 562 Collective in the north Long Beach neighborhood of Bixby Knolls. She also refused to pay the city's permit fee and didn't participate in the lottery. On Feb. 14, 2011, the police raided her collective while she was taking her daughter to the orthodontist. Security footage filmed during the raid shows plainclothes officers accompanied by Sund standing in her lobby.

No arrests were made, but Aldrich received a fine. The cops returned again three months later, again without a warrant. When her employees refused to open the safe, police arrested them but left empty-handed. Sund was present for that raid, too.

"He's a business-license approver," Aldrich complains. "Why he's out there participating in these raids, I have no idea."

City attorney Shannon insisted that the $15,000 in fees demanded by Long Beach is justifiable, given the city's dire economic situation and the cost of regulating the dispensaries that his office envisioned. "We wanted to limit the number of dispensaries, and we wanted to recover our costs," he says. However, Shannon acknowledges, the fee "inadvertently" made it more likely that the "more profit-oriented collectives" would win the lottery. "That was never intended, of course, but that's a fair statement," he says. "It was an unintended consequence."

Matt Pappas, the lawyer who represents Pack and Gayle in their lawsuit against the city, now represents Aldrich, Parks and other collective operators whom the city fined, raided or both for violating its medical-marijuana ordinance.

"I don't know what's happening at the city, but there's something wrong," Pappas says. "When people say they can engineer things and you won't get raided since you're paying money that gets spread about, it's awfully suspect. Think about it: The city is taking money from some collectives and not issuing them citations and going out and raiding the ones that aren't paying the money."

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Whatever its basis in reality, the whiff of corruption hasn't gone unnoticed by the federal government. Sources involved in Long Beach's medical-marijuana community told the Weekly that FBI agents have interviewed them, although for the most part they refused to provide specifics. "I can't tell you anything about that," said one source.

"They did visit me," said another. "Their questions were about public corruption and not the legality of medical marijuana. The statement I gave was that I wasn't aware of any malfeasance and hadn't engaged in any."

One obvious argument against the concept of deliberate corruption is that collectives that did win the lottery and that haven't been subjected to heavy fines by the city still have no guarantee they won't be shut down. This elite group of collectives, which includes Avalon Wellness Collective, numbers roughly a dozen and has formed a group called Long Beach Collective Association (LBCA). The group's lawyers include both Violas and Rick Brizendine, whose name turned up in a search-warrant affidavit filed by the Orange County Sheriff's Department when it raided Belmont Shore Natural Care collective on Nov. 8, 2011. According to sheriff's officials, the department raided the collective after finding ties between Belmont Shore Natural Care and several Orange County collectives run by a silent investor who, they assert, was using Brizendine to launder his money. Brizendine returned an initial telephone call seeking his comment for this story, but he has subsequently failed to answer his phone. In an interview with the Long Beach Post, he denied any wrongdoing.

Carl Kemp, a registered lobbyist at City Hall, also represents LBCA. He says his clients are frustrated with the fact the city keeps changing its rules. "We have done a lot of work to make the ordinance work well for everyone," Kemp says. "Mr. Shannon has a predisposition against the idea of medical marijuana, and I respect that. But unfortunately, I don't think any moral attitude should force people who have a legitimate need to go back into the dark alley to get their medicine."

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