Santa Ana's Great Pot Raid

After years of doing nothing to stop dispensaries from coming to town, the police crack down

Santa Ana's Great Pot Raid
Illustration: Luke McGarry | Design: Dustin Ames

It's about 2 o'clock on July 31, a hot and humid Thursday afternoon, and Mike and Scott (who asked to be identified only by their first names) are kicking back in Aloha Community Collective Association.

Undercover officers posing as patients began visiting other shops that had yet to be raided. . . . All volunteers, receptionists and security guards were arrested and issued misdemeanor tickets for violating the city’s pot ban.

The low-key Santa Ana medical-marijuana dispensary is nestled comfortably in a somewhat-decrepit two-story building just off 17th Street, a couple of blocks from the 5 freeway. Rachel Garcia, a receptionist and budtender, is standing outside the shop. She notices two middle-aged men who look like typical patients approaching the entrance.

Suddenly, several police vehicles and a paddy wagon pull up. Garcia knows in an instant the two men are plainclothes cops. Sure enough, they signal to the arriving convoy by pointing at the dispensary. They command Garcia to go back inside, which she does, immediately informing Mike and Scott that police officers are outside. By the time she starts talking, one of the vehicles is already parked on the dispensary's doorstep, almost blocking the front door.

Officers detain everyone present at Aloha Collective at the time of the raid
Courtesy Aloha Collective
Officers detain everyone present at Aloha Collective at the time of the raid
A SAPD officer leads a plainclothes cop through the collective
Courtesy Aloha Collective
A SAPD officer leads a plainclothes cop through the collective

Mike and Scott have operated Aloha for five years, changing locations annually. They've previously been raided by the feds—the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to be exact—and have had to contend with frequent code-enforcement checks. But never, they say, did they expect to be raided by the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD). Yet there they are: Other than the two plainclothes officers and one person in a Los Angeles Police Department uniform, all the officers are carrying badges identifying them as Santa Ana cops.

Besides Mike, Scott and Garcia, there were three other people inside the club. All six were quickly handcuffed and commanded to sit. The officers refused to tell anyone if they were under arrest. "They said they were going to cite us," Garcia recalls. "It would take a few hours, and then we'd be out."

As it turned out, Aloha was one of the first dispensaries to be raided that afternoon, so the paddy wagon was otherwise empty on the short ride to the Santa Ana Jail. They could consider themselves lucky: Nearly 70 people would be arrested that day, many of whom would complain about cramped, even dangerously overheated conditions in the vehicle and, later, the city jail.

Some 24 dispensaries were targeted by Santa Ana cops throughout the afternoon. Seven were already closed when officers arrived, staff at another managed to flee the location before they could be arrested, and 16 others were successfully raided, according to a SAPD list obtained by the Weekly. A total of 68 people were cited as being in violation of the city's municipal code banning the owning or operating of, as well as volunteering at, a cannabis dispensary.

Once at the jail, Mike and Scott were taken to a holding cell; although the maximum occupancy posted was eight, the cell was already crowded with at least 20 people. Mike and Scott were held there overnight and fined $500 each.

"I have a history of claustrophobia," Scott says. When he complained to officers about the condition of the cell, he says, he was placed in solitary confinement for eight hours. "[An officer] threw me in a cell. I got put in a confinement situation for pointing out a human right. After she put me in the cell, she started putting people back in the chairs back in the big room."

Mike remained in the packed holding cell, where, he says, he was repeatedly refused access to his heart medication, which he hoped his girlfriend could bring to the jail. Garcia says she endured the same treatment.

"I was just more mad that I didn't get to put my daughter to sleep that night," she says, adding she wasn't released until 6 a.m. Friday. Luckily, her best friend was able to pick up her daughter from daycare. When she was finally released, her phone was already dead, but she was able to borrow someone else's to contact her fellow Aloha employees, who gave her a ride home.

Asked how she felt about being locked up overnight, Garcia had a message for Santa Ana cops: "Go fight real crime," she said. "Go raid the meth houses."

*     *     *

Santa Ana has officially banned medical-marijuana dispensaries from operating in the city since 2007. Police have only been used to support the city's code-enforcement staff, not to make arrests by charging dispensary employees with misdemeanor criminal violations.

In the years since the Santa Ana's barely enforced ban took effect, however, Orange County has witnessed a war on medical marijuana that has resulted in the closure of nearly all storefront dispensaries that were operating in other cities. DEA raids in Costa Mesa, as well as city-supported federal asset-forfeiture lawsuits against landlords in Anaheim and Lake Forest, pushed many shops to Santa Ana.

In the context of OC's ongoing potpocalypse, Santa Ana's civil-only enforcement has resulted in what is effectively a Wild West scenario, with dispensaries opening shop throughout the city in residential neighborhoods and business parks. Finally, on Nov. 15, 2013, the city took action, sending legal notices to every dispensary in Santa Ana to warn them they had 15 days to shut down or face civil and criminal penalties. The cutoff date came and went. The dispensaries stayed.

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