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.
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.
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.
As of July 15, just a couple of weeks before Santa Ana's great pot raid, the city estimated no less than 81 dispensaries were still operating within its boundaries. Meanwhile, marijuana activists had managed to gather enough signatures to qualify a medical-marijuana regulatory initiative for the November 2014 ballot.
Sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), the proposal would limit the number of shops operating within the city to 22, set the patient age requirement at 18 years old and allow delivery services to continue. A competing proposal backed by the city has an age requirement of 21 to enter a dispensary, disallows all delivery services and reduces the number of shops to 18. A separate initiative similar to OC NORML's and backed by a group of dispensaries failed to secure the requisite signatures for placement on the ballot.
As if that weren't confusing enough, at a July 15 meeting, the Santa Ana City Council took public comments on whether to add a third ballot proposal that would ban medical-marijuana dispensaries altogether. Not surprisingly, the meeting drew a packed, highly impassioned crowd that was evenly divided between pro- and anti-marijuana speakers.
Santa Ana resident Steve McGuigan scolded the City Council, saying its lack of leadership had led to a plague of pot clubs in his neighborhood. "The enforcement is on you guys, the policies that you've used for code enforcement," he charged. "It's on you."
Another resident, Robin Cook, pleaded with the council to go forward with the proposed voter initiative banning all pot clubs. "Please show some intestinal fortitude and put this choice on the ballot," he said.
"It makes no sense to add a third measure to the ballot at this time," countered Derick Warden, another Santa Ana resident. "It's time to tax it, regulate it and treat it like wine."
Also arguing against a ban was a self-identified marijuana-prescribing doctor named Mark Wagner, who told the council that regulation is necessary to give patients safe access to medical-grade cannabis, rather than contaminated street weed.
After more than two hours of public comments, the council looked exhausted—except for bespectacled councilwoman Michelle Martinez, who launched into an anti-marijuana tirade, urging her colleagues to support an electoral ban on marijuana dispensaries and berating the presence of "pot shops" and "dab bars" in her city. "If you look at the application Weedmaps, you will see that there are literally 30 to 40 of these dab bars," she said.
Both Mayor Pro Tem Sal Tinajero and councilman Vince Sarmiento argued the city did not have the resources to enforce Santa Ana's current ban, let alone a new one. "If we place a ban on the ballot, there's a very good chance that the ban prevails," Tinajero said, "and the city will have no way to enforce it." Instead, he and Sarmiento urged the council to support a policy of taxation and regulation, citing the tax income expected from licensed dispensaries as the only means of allowing adequate enforcement.
But their argument quickly became moot. Without warning, Martinez substituted a new motion for the council's vote: allocating $500,000 toward the creation of a vice squad tasked with enforcing the city's current marijuana ban. The vote passed 5-1.
Immediately following the meeting, Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas ordered his subordinates to change their marijuana-enforcement policy, Santa Ana Police spokesman Anthony Bertagna told the Weekly. Bertagna said he was unaware whether Rojas was directly ordered to change enforcement tactics based on instruction from the City Council or other city officials. (Rojas was out of town and unavailable to speak with the Weekly.) "Whether there were conversations with the council, city manager and the chief . . . I'm certainly not privy to those," Bertagna said.
However the message was passed to police, the outcome was clear: Anyone found to be working in a dispensary in the city would be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor crime.
* * *
In the week following the July 15 meeting, Santa Ana police raided 17 dispensaries throughout the city and issued 42 misdemeanor citations. Three of the shops—Wax R Us, Emerald and Wax City—were so-called dab bars, dispensaries offering a potent (and controversial) form of concentrated cannabis that requires the use of a blowtorch and a titanium nail to ingest. Meanwhile, according to dispensary sources who spoke with the Weekly, undercover police officers posing as patients began visiting other shops that had yet to be raided.
Those dispensaries didn't have to wait long. On July 24, at least three were raided, and all volunteers, receptionists and security guards were arrested and issued misdemeanor tickets for violating the city's pot ban. According to one anonymous dispensary source, the police didn't even bother interrogating anyone and did not confiscate any marijuana or cash. "No one was interviewed at the city—just fingerprinted and charged with being unlawfully present at a marijuana dispensary and given court dates," the source said.
The biggest arrests, of course, took place on July 31. That day, a dispensary volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous, recognized one of the cops participating in the raid as a card-carrying patient who had previously been at the shop asking for marijuana. "He was actually there when the raid happened, and I think he was here two weeks prior to the raid," the source said. "He wasn't a first-time patient that day. From what I know, he was part of the raid."
According to several accounts provided to the Weekly by the targeted dispensaries, the raids were carried out in two distinct styles. At some shops, one to three undercover officers were already inside the dispensary posing as patients when police arrived and held open a door to allow their fellow officers in. At other locations, police threatened to arrest security guards (for which the guards would lose their licenses) and managed to convince the guards to allow them in.
At one shop, officers surprised employees by running in and yelling, "Police Department!" The manager tried to lock the door to the tending room, usually a backroom where marijuana is stored on shelves. But an officer pulled it open so forcefully the door nearly came off its hinges.
"It felt like a robbery," the source stated, adding that officers then began interrogating the manager. "So how do your dabs work?" he says they demanded. The manager reportedly replied, "Sir, we do not medicate on-site," which failed to impress the cops.
"Oh, look out, he knows the lingo," one officer allegedly stated. "He must be a weed expert."
One anonymous dispensary source told the Weekly that two undercover cops entered the shop just moments before the police arrived. "There was a tall male and a woman," the source said. The two purported patients were asked to provide valid California driver's licenses and doctor's recommendations. "The male left to go get their recs from the car, and the female waited and continued with her questioning about how dispensaries work," the source stated. Just a few minutes later, about seven uniformed cops entered the dispensary.
At another location, officers allegedly began searching the personal belongings of everyone there. "They started asking for ID, and some had their ID in the office," one anonymous source claimed. When some of the employees refused to cooperate and complained the rights of those present were being violated, the lead officer grew angry. "Shut the fuck up," the source claims the cop yelled. "Everybody's an attorney. Go to fucking school." The officers then proceeded to continue their search.
A fourth dispensary source says he recognized one of the officers in the raid as a patient who had previously signed a statement that he was not working for law enforcement. According to the source, the cop seemed apologetic. "I know you guys. You're one of the good ones," the source claims the cop told him. "I thought we were going to leave you alone."
Several of the sources who provided statements to the Weekly complained less about police tactics during the raids than of the conditions they suffered following their arrest. One dispensary worker claimed the paddy wagon was already full when she was arrested. "We were the last stop before the jail," she said. At the jail, guards "proceeded to put 35-plus of us in the same cell [that was] made for eight. Instantly, the cell was 20 degrees warmer, no one could sit down, and the smell was horrible from all the bodies in such a small place."
The source further claimed that guards began releasing some of the female arrestees after midnight because the cells were too full. "No one from our shop who was brought in had any kind of [police] record, and we are patients ourselves," she said.
While Santa Ana police appeared to have every intention of arresting anyone working at the dispensaries, according to Bertagna, the cops weren't looking to book any patients that day. "No patients were taken into custody," he insisted. However, at least two of the people arrested claim they were not working or volunteering for the dispensary, but were nonetheless booked and processed alongside everyone else.
"I was one of the patrons arrested at [the] collective along with all their staff and volunteers," one person claimed in a written statement provided to the Weekly. (The name of that person, who asked to remain anonymous, was included on the list of arrestees from the raids that was provided to the Weekly by Bertagna.) "I have absolutely no affiliation with the collective and was there solely as a visitor." The person said he had retained an attorney and was in the process of filing a complaint against the city.
"I was actually arrested," said a woman present during the raid on Aloha who asked to be identified as Miss A. She denied working for the club, saying she simply happened to know one of the owners. "I was visiting Mike for his birthday," she said. "[SAPD officers] didn't ask me any questions, if we were employees, if we were volunteers."
* * *
Approximately 20 marijuana advocates attended the Aug. 5 Santa Ana City Council meeting. They carried prepared statements and signs proclaiming, "I'm a patient" and, "I'm a human being"; they planned to barrage the council with detailed narratives of how their rights were violated during the raids less than a week earlier. But that was not to be: The council, with only four of its seven members present, chose to delay discussion of the dispensary issue until all members were in attendance.
Upon hearing this, at least half the audience left the room. Almost three hours into the meeting, the floor was opened for general public comments. Most residents who spoke had little to say about medical marijuana. They seemed more concerned with bicycle registration and the proposed Fourth Street light-rail project. However, Phillip Escobedo, who had spoken against dispensaries at the last council meeting, urged voters to take a stand against weed in his city. "I want to urge every registered voter here to vote no on both marijuana initiatives because both of them want to delete the ban and make these dispensaries legal," he said. "They are a drug cartel."
Matt Pappas, a medical-marijuana lawyer who has frequently battled with Santa Ana and other cities that have banned cannabis clubs, left that meeting early to argue in favor of regulating marijuana at a Costa Mesa City Council meeting. Pappas criticized police for raiding the clubs without search warrants.
"When you break in to seize people, you need warrants," he told the Weekly, adding that Santa Ana's vote to budget $500,000 for raiding collectives amounted to the equivalent of "spending half a million dollars to violate the Fourth Amendment."
Randall T. Longwith, another medical-marijuana lawyer, told the Weekly he is already representing three people who were wrongfully arrested during the raids. He predicted the raids will lead to a class-action lawsuit against the city and blamed a lack of cohesion between the City Council and the SAPD for the confusion over marijuana. "Either there's absolute, abject lying going on to the public, or there is an unbelievable failure of communication between the two entities," he said.
One of the few marijuana activists who stayed at the Aug. 5 meeting to speak was Kandice Hawes, director of OC NORML. "The situation that we have in Santa Ana is a result of the police department," she told the Weekly the next day. By not enforcing its ban, Hawes argued, the city bears responsibility for the massive influx of dispensaries. "We originally wrote our initiative to solve that problem," she said. "We're in a really awkward position."
Hawes predicts that voters will give support to either the city's initiative regulating pot clubs or to the initiative proposed by NORML. "I think the residents understand that the current policy of officially banning the collectives while allowing them to exist without regulation isn't working," she said. "If Santa Ana voters pass one of the two medical-marijuana measures, they can be the leaders of the county. Other cities and groups are watching to see what the outcome will be. This vote is more important than just one city."
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