At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the brief news item that appeared in the July 5 issue of the Daily Pilot: "A Costa Mesa man was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs after he crashed his SUV into a medical-marijuana dispensary." The driver, a 68-year-old man behind the wheel of a 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander, smashed "into the front entrance of Newport Mesa Health Center, 524 W. 19th St., Unit B, about 3:30 p.m.," the newspaper reported. "The car went clear to the back end of the business."
Because nobody was harmed in the incident, the story might have ended there. Some readers might have chuckled over the irony of a drunk driver colliding into a pot club. But to one reader, the story came as a complete shock.
Costa Mesa had banned medical-marijuana dispensaries in 2005, and seven years later, after unsuccessfully trying to force collectives to shut down, the city had called in the federal government to do the job. In January 2012, the DEA raided several clubs and sent letters threatening to file charges against operators and landlords who didn't leave town by the end of the month. So how could it be possible that while every other storefront had fled Costa Mesa, one club had managed to stay open, operating in plain sight, even surviving a collision with a drunk driver?
The reader in question happened to be the former operator of another dispensary in the city who asked to remain anonymous for this article. That collective catered to seriously ill patients, received referrals from local hospitals and took pains to strictly follow the California Attorney General's guidelines on complying with the state's medical-marijuana law; when the city told it to shut down, the collective did so voluntarily. After reading the Daily Pilot story, the owner paid a visit to the police department and demanded some answers.
First, the owner met with Lieutenant Mark Manley, the point person for enforcing the city's ban on dispensaries, as well as an attorney working with the city. "They told me I could not reopen because of federal law," the former dispensary owner told the Weekly. When asked why Newport Mesa Health Center was being allowed to operate, the owner claims another officer pointed at a stack of paperwork on his desk, all of which were unsolved cases of serious crimes such as murder. "If you open," the officer reportedly stated, "I will not have time to bother you. . . . We will ignore you also."
"I wasn't the only operator who asked questions of the city," the former owner says. "Other collective operators and attorneys did, too. But nobody wanted to answer any questions about that club."
Attorney Christopher Glew represented several dispensaries that were forced out of Costa Mesa by the city last year. He expressed shock that officials would allow a club to continue operating after being alerted to its presence. "The city of Costa Mesa spent a lot of money in legal fees and court costs and enforcement proceedings to shut down the dispensaries that were operating aboveboard and in compliance with state law," he said. "We tried proposing regulations and tax schemes, and [the city] shot down everything, so the fact that people are drawing attention to a club and the city still isn't doing anything is beyond bizarre."
The Weekly attempted to get answers about Costa Mesa's policy on cannabis clubs, but telephone calls to Manley and City Attorney Tom Duarte went unanswered. While it's certainly possible the city is too busy to deal with what appears to be the only marijuana dispensary still operating in plain sight, a closer examination by the Weekly suggests that nothing about Newport Mesa Health Center holds up to even the slightest scrutiny.
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The dispensary, which filed articles of incorporation on Feb. 4, 2011, voluntarily dissolved just four months later, on June 17, claiming it had no assets. The person who signed the paperwork was Blessing Apkofure, an anesthesiologist of Nigerian descent. (Efforts to reach her at the collective were unsuccessful, although an employee acknowledged she occasionally stopped by.) In any case, the California Board of Equalization states it has no sellers' permit on file for the collective.
Also, there's the dispensary's address: 524 W. 19th St. It's unusual because a review of title searches by the Weekly shows that, while there is a 524 W. 19th St. in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, there isn't one in Costa Mesa. The building in which Newport Mesa Health Center operates (even though it shouldn't) is part of a somewhat-dilapidated strip mall that also houses a taquería, a pool hall and a smoke shop. On three separate occasions, a Weekly reporter was able to purchase marijuana inside after providing a valid doctor's note and a California driver's license. However, at no point during the three visits was the reporter asked to sign a membership form for the cannabis collective, as required by state law. The other customers present each time personified the stereotype of the non-medical smoker, with almost all of them being young, often heavily tattooed men with no discernible ailments.
Property records show the landlord is a Costa Mesa resident named Antonio L. Caselini, whose name turns up in numerous civil lawsuits. According to a 1993 civil lawsuit, Caselini is actually an alias; his real name is Safar Bahkshi. A 1984 property record shows that "Caselini" handed over a Huntington Beach property that year to his wife, Roberta Bahkshi.
Reached by telephone this week, Caselini refused to answer any questions and immediately hung up the phone. In a subsequent conversation, he acknowledged being Newport Mesa Health Center's landlord, but he claimed the dispensary had already moved and that "attorneys were handling the matter." Then he hung up again. However, just minutes before that call, the Weekly telephoned the dispensary and spoke to an employee. It was still open for business.