At about 7 a.m. on March 20, a fire alarm went off inside a nondescript warehouse in the 1100 block of East 17th Street in Santa Ana, near the 5 freeway. It's unclear if someone pulled the alarm or if something else triggered the device, but there was apparently no fire inside the building.
When Orange County Fire Authority units rolled up to the location, sirens blaring, they saw no flames or smoke, just five men jumping into separate vehicles and racing away from the scene. By 10:45 a.m., police had obtained a warrant to search the building, which was locked–even the fire-escape doors had been secured with 3-inch chains. "Had there been an actual fire, nobody would have made it out," remarked police spokesman Corporal Anthony Bertagna. "Those chains were huge."
The mystery of the disappearing men was quickly explained by what police discovered inside the warehouse: more than 1,600 marijuana plants divided into various rooms for different stages of development. The sophisticated grow operation had its own intricate lighting and irrigation systems and was still under construction, although, for obvious reasons, nobody had applied for city permits to do the work. The total worth of the haul, according to a state marijuana-street-value formula cited by Bertagna, was $2.9 million.
The illegal pot grow was hardly the first one discovered within city limits in recent years. In just one example from March 2011, police found what they called one of "the largest and most high-tech" grows they'd ever witnessed inside a 61,000-square-foot building capable of producing $120,000 of pot per week. And as recently as Feb. 5, after a tipster notified police about a blown transformer in the 600 block of South Santa Fe Street, cops discovered approximately 2,100 marijuana plants inside what Bertagna referred to as a "marijuana factory" with a dozen different grow rooms, an operation so vast it had overdrawn its electrical supply.
"They had 10 to 13 air-conditioning units put in without making any change to the electrical setup," Bertagna complained. "That's why the transformers started blowing, and why you have to get permits and code enforcement requires you to upgrade the system."
The fact that no permits had been pulled for electrical work at the building is no shock. Growing marijuana has been illegal in Santa Ana under a city ban that has been in place since 2007. As the Weekly previously reported (see "Santa Ana's Great Pot Raid," Aug. 14, 2014), as other cities throughout Orange County–particularly Anaheim, Lake Forest, Garden Grove and Costa Mesa–have driven dispensaries out of town, Santa Ana has become something of a last stand for medical marijuana. Despite the massive raid by city cops of 24 dispensaries last July, which resulted in the arrest of nearly 70 people, roughly 100 rogue dispensaries and delivery services continue to operate in violation of city law. Meanwhile, not a cent of the untold thousands of dollars of daily donations collected from patients goes to city coffers in the form of tax revenue.
But all of that is about to change. On Nov. 4, 2014, an overwhelming majority of Santa Ana voters–65.9 percent, to be exact–approved Measure BB, Orange County's first voter-backed initiative requiring city officials to allow medical-marijuana dispensaries to open their doors.
The measure allowed for applicants to compete in a lottery that would result in the establishment of 20 dispensaries and had been put on the ballot by city officials to compete with a citizen-backed initiative called the "Santa Ana Medical Cannabis Restriction and Limitation Initiative," which, despite its title, contained no set limit on the number of dispensaries that would be allowed to open.
On Feb. 5–the same day cops raided the grow house that blew the aforementioned electrical transformer–the city held its lottery. From a total of 660 balls, each one representing individuals and corporations that had paid more than $1,500 in application fees, officials drew 20 balls. Lottery losers were automatically placed on a lengthy waiting list; the 20 victors would undergo a 60-day waiting period while the Santa Ana Police Department conducted criminal background checks. Anyone who fails to pass muster loses their spot to the next person on the waiting list.
Under Measure BB, nobody under the age of 21 will be allowed inside the dispensaries, which must be located at least 500 feet away from one another and at least 1,000 feet away from a school, park or residential area. The city will receive a 5 percent tax on all pot sales, money that will help pay for a law-enforcement team of cops and code-enforcement agents who will regulate the dispensaries. Perhaps the most significant mandate–and most ironic, given the city's apparently booming illegal marijuana-cultivation industry–is that none of the dispensaries will be allowed to grow marijuana onsite.
On a recent late weekday morning–so late it's verging on noon, really–one of the Measure BB winners is relaxing on a wraparound couch inside a second-story condominium within a gated community just a stone's throw from South Coast Plaza. Latino and in his mid-40s, he's wearing a black ball cap and a red-T-shirt, from which bulge heavily inked arms. He leans forward, elbows gently resting on his knees, with his eyes fixed on a flat-screen TV high on the living room wall showing CNN's coverage of the latest ISIS news.
The man's name is Louis Freese, but he's better known by his stage name, B-Real, the nasally voiced rapper and lead songwriter of the platinum-selling and legendarily pot-centric LA hip-hop group Cypress Hill. Beneath the TV are several shelves stacked with expensive German glass pipes recently flown in from head shops in Amsterdam. On the glass coffee table is a stack of post cards featuring an illustration of Dr. Greenthumb, a man in an Afro and sunglasses, and emblazoned with the words "Thank you Santa Ana!"
If anyone in the rap world is synonymous with the celebration of all things marijuana, it's B-Real. Cypress Hill's first, eponymous album appeared in 1991, a good year before Dr. Dre's The Chronic brought Snoop Dogg to worldwide fame and cemented West Coast gangster rap's weed-friendly reputation. The group combined B-Real's impish, darkly humorous rhymes and Sen Dog's baritone backup vocals with DJ Muggs' funky beats. With songs such as "Light Another," "Insane In the Brain" and "Hits From the Bong," Cypress Hill not only went platinum, but also became the first major hip-hop act to embrace marijuana culture.
Sitting next to B-Real in the condo is his manager, Enas Barkho, who doubles as B-Real's partner in the soon-to-open Dr. Greenthumb dispensary. Behind them, seated at a round table in the kitchen, is their appointment secretary, a tall, slender Latina who is talking on her cell phone, desperately pushing back B-Real's appointments for the day.
Across the coffee table from B-Real and Barkho is their attorney, Christopher Glew, one of the most experienced medical-marijuana lawyers in California, who is describing the bizarre way Santa Ana has sought to establish the state's first voter-backed, city-supported medical-marijuana marketplace. Because the city put no limit on the number of applications it would consider for the lottery, deep-pocketed applicants were free to create as many corporations as they wanted to compete for the available addresses that would qualify for the city's marijuana ordinance.
"Effectively, they stuffed the ballot box," argues Glew, who is wearing a pin-striped suit as he leans back in a contemporary lounge chair. "Meanwhile, the initiative said that all dispensaries had to be in operation prior to the application, but they couldn't be operating in violation of the Santa Ana ordinance, which doesn't make sense because if you were operating, you were violating the ordinance."
The dozens of collectives that have operated in Santa Ana for years but lost at the lottery are reportedly considering something along the lines of a class-action lawsuit. "A lot of people who are open in Santa Ana right now think if they get the ordinance shot down, that will allow them to stay in operation," Glew says. "Several attorneys have the idea of coming in and saying, 'We want an injunction; we want to stop this,' but the problem is nobody wants to pay for it right now."
Together, Glew and attorney Randall Longwith–director of the Orange County chapter for Americans for Safe Access, who helped gather signatures for Measure BB–represent the 20 lottery winners. Some of their clients were already operating storefronts in violation of the city's ban, while the rest, including B-Real's Dr. Greenthumb, have yet to set up shop. Glew says they are a diverse crowd. "There are some characters," he says vaguely. "Some people have very, I would say, humanitarian motives, and others have had a strong presence in the cannabis community for years, people like B-Real that finally have an outlet to express themselves legally."
As B-Real tells it, marijuana was always part of his life, well before Cypress Hill. "It was part of our everyday lives," he says. "We grew up celebrating it, reading about it in High Times magazine, growing it in our back yards, stealing it from our neighbors who were growing it."
By the time he was a teenager in the mid- to late 1980s, B-Real was living in South Gate and hanging out in a Bloods-affiliated street gang called Families with his childhood friend and future Cypress Hill band mate Senen Reyes, a.k.a. Sen Dog, whose brother already had a record deal.
"They asked me to come write some stuff for them, and I felt like I had nothing to lose, living the life I was living at the time, so I got bitten by the music bug," says B-Real. "Music pretty much saved me. I knew I was either going to do music or stay [in the gang] and probably end up in a penitentiary in a few years, or a grave or paralyzed because those are the three scenarios."
Cypress Hill was born when Sen Dog and B-Real hooked up with a half-Norwegian, half-Italian producer from Queens named Lawrence Muggerud, a.k.a. DJ Muggs, whose turntables brought a distinctly retro combination of wah-wah-saturated guitar riffs, bass and horns to the mix. The group took its name from the street on which Sen Dog lived in South Gate, Cypress Avenue, as well as an actual neighborhood bordering Queens and Brooklyn that was featured in the 1983 graffiti-artist movie Wild Style.
Unlike most other LA-based rap groups who sought to emulate N.W.A, Cypress Hill deliberately used humor to get their message across. The band's first album opens with the song "Pigs," which describes various police officers as corrupt, lazy or closeted gays and which B-Real says was influenced by his childhood memories of being harassed by cops. "The one thing we wanted to do was not shove messages down peoples' throats," he says. "We are saying some serious shit, but in a way that will make you laugh because we are kind of making fun of it."
Another track on the album, "Light Another," began Cypress Hill's public identification with celebrating pot culture, a sentiment that was also reflected in the band's logo, a pot leaf superimposed on a skull. Whenever Cypress Hill played live, including a regular slot on the Smokin' Grooves Tour, they did so on a stage festooned with marijuana-related props: an inflatable king smoking a fat joint, a giant-size Buddha, an oversized pot leaf.
According to B-Real, Cypress Hill were immediately scouted by pot-legalization groups such as the National Organization to Repeal Marijuana Laws (NORML). "It gave every indication that we were a band of stoners, and they approached us to see if we'd be interested in championing the cause and becoming members of NORML and educating people about the movement," B-Real says. "We definitely embraced that and did it for a good long time."
When California voters passed Proposition 215 in November 1996, making it the first state to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes, the band felt vindicated in their embrace of pot, despite the fact they had done so at the cost of some commercial success. "At 19 million records sold worldwide, for any other band, this affords you some opportunities, but because our brand was associated with marijuana and the politics of legalization, we were blackballed from a lot of things," B-Real argues. "Like, Pepsi wasn't going to come to Cypress Hill; brands such as that don't want to be associated with marijuana culture. Although now that we have 19 other states that have legislation in place, it is more mainstream, and these corporate entities are a little more cutting-edge and might want to come to us as ambassadors for their brand."
Over the past decade, as Cypress Hill continued to sell records, B-Real grew increasingly interested in not just agitating for pot legalization, but also becoming involved in the industry itself. On the band's fourth album, Cypress Hill IV, he introduced his pot-grower alter ego, Dr. Greenthumb. "When I created that song, I started doing things as that alter ego, putting on events, throwing parties and involving myself in the culture," B-Real says. Among other things, he created the web-based show B-Real TV to help broadcast his celebration of all things marijuana, especially his own indica strain, JetFuel OG, which was created from the original plant that started the OG craze back in the 1990s.
Despite the proliferation of dispensaries in Los Angeles, B-Real insists he was never tempted to open his own shop. "What I did was build relationships with shop owners to see what they were doing and how they were doing it," he explains. "Some would definitely run their shops better than others. But I didn't want to jump in without any protection, without any viable laws in place, because with Cypress Hill, we would have faced so much scrutiny that we probably would have been shut down by now."
Lending Dr. Greenthumb's name to an actual dispensary was an idea that stemmed from B-Real's friendship with his manager, Barkho, who grew up in Costa Mesa and skipped college to go into the recording industry. "Our relationship formed over the love of marijuana," Barkho says. "We both enjoyed smoking high-grade marijuana and became best friends, and the natural evolution was we became business partners."
After Santa Ana voters passed Measure BB, Barkho and B-Real immediately put together plans to open a Dr. Greenthumb dispensary. "Fortunately, we got a great opportunity in Santa Ana to do it properly and legitimately without worrying about if we are going to open up down here and get shut down in six months," B-Real says. "We want to do right by our fans, by our patients who might not even be music fans but just want quality meds. It's not about my name as an artist, it's not about the Cypress Hill name; it's about the patients who are coming for the meds, trying to get the right setting that makes them comfortable and getting them the right meds responsibly."
There's a lot that needs to happen before Dr. Greenthumb becomes a reality, however. After the lottery winners were announced on Feb. 5, the city estimated it would take 60 days to complete paperwork for the dispensary operators and run a police department background check. But according to Robert Cortez, a special assistant to Santa Ana's city manager, only two of the lottery winners (Cortez refused to name them) have so far submitted the paperwork, never mind paid the annual $12,086 permit fee that will allow them to operate. "It looks like it's taking longer than we anticipated," Cortez says.
On Feb. 6, the day after the lottery, the city sent letters to all the dispensaries that were operating in the city illegally, warning them they had until April 6 to shut down. Despite the fact that none of the legal dispensaries will be open yet, Cortez confirms that deadline will be enforced. "Both code enforcement and police officers are part of the enforcement team," he says. "So if it's an illegal dispensary, we will have to enforce the ordinance."
With the city intent on shutting down existing dispensaries much faster than it is capable of permitting new ones come complaints that patients who need medication will lose out. "It's my understanding that the city only has two individuals to review permits," says attorney Longwith, who represents several of the lottery winners. "At this point, it's a 12-week waiting process before they can even get to review. That is going to create a problem."
Longwith rattled off a laundry list of issues that need to be resolved before the legal dispensaries open for business. Although Measure BB states that security guards should be present at the dispensaries, there is no provision for them to be armed. Given that banks refuse to create accounts for pot clubs, they operate on a cash-only basis, making them vulnerable to strong-arm robberies. And despite the fact that state law allows card-carrying patients 18 and older to smoke cannabis, the city's law will only allow adults 21 and older into the dispensaries. "There's an issue right now with regard to military veterans who are coming back from war with PTSD, and they have to bring mommy in with them to get their medicine," Longwith argues. "There has to be a way we can talk about this and clear up some of these issues."
While the city manager's office works out those details, Longwith has organized the lottery winners into the Santa Ana Collective Association. According to Chris Eggers, marketing director with the Longwith Group, the group's purpose is to create the "best practices" that will guide the legal dispensaries going forward. "What we're really talking about is best practice compliance," Eggers says. "And best practice operators tend to be people who do lab testing, keep copious records with the state, pay taxes, regulate access. They are not a nuisance to their neighbors; they don't have odor issues, don't sell to minors and don't have ties to nefarious activities."
One of Longwith's clients, lottery winner Derek Worden, Eggers says, is an example of a "best practice operator." Worden operates South Coast Patients Association, which has enjoyed a long presence in Santa Ana despite the city's ban. "The most important thing to us is being able to open our doors [in our new location] the day they want to shut our doors," Worden says, adding that the majority of his collective's members are veterans and older patients with terminal illnesses. "The products we have for these patients don't exist on the streets," he says. "The only place you can go for it is a true medical-cannabis collective that lab tests the products like we do."
For his part, B-Real's sights are already set well beyond the debate over access to medical marijuana. He predicts that California voters will legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in 2016 and that many other cities will follow Santa Ana's example in the next several months. "It behooves everybody to make some money off this culture before legalization happens," he says. "A lot of cities need an infusion of revenue, and this 5 percent tax that Santa Ana will take off the top goes straight to the city. All these cities that don't have that tax are going to want to get it."
Although he has a busy touring schedule with Cypress Hill, not to mention studio work and managing B-Real TV, the rapper insists he will be a big part of Dr. Greenthumb once it opens. "Most of the time, in my industry, people come up to me and say, 'I've got this opportunity for you. We just want to use your name; we will give you a percentage.' It's just a licensing deal," he explains. "That's not what this is to me because this has been a passion for me for 20-odd years, even before the music–passion for legalization, period. It's very real for myself and Enas. It's something we've always thought about and finally have an opportunity to do, and we're very excited about it."