If it wasn’t for a bad landing on a parachute platform during an ROTC exercise, Jennifer McGrath would likely be a retired military lawyer by now.
What McGrath does now is something she would have never contemplated back in college, much less just a few years ago: the onetime Orange County Republican Party-backed city attorney for Huntington Beach is now in private practice, using her considerable legal skills to help end the county’s war on medical cannabis. “My life took a completely unexpected turn,” she says. “But I’m good with that.”
Born in the Bay Area city of Fremont, McGrath spent much of her childhood traveling the country as the child of a professional bowler before the age of 7, when she arrived in Huntington Beach, where she’s lived ever since. In 1994, a year before graduating from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, McGrath got an internship at the Huntington Beach city attorney’s office. That led directly to a full-time job, and she gradually worked her way up the chain of command. The city is one of less than a dozen in California that have an elected city attorney, so in 2002, she raised $80,000, put her name on the ballot—and won.
Although she consistently received plaudits for her work to reduce outsourcing and save the city money, McGrath’s tenure as chief lawyer proved to be a difficult one. When she moved to settle legitimate legal claims stemming from incidents of police brutality by Huntington Beach police officers, some of her Republican colleagues began to grumble, unfairly nicknaming Surf City “Settlement City.” The mother of two autistic children also went through a difficult divorce and bankruptcy filing as a result of her husband’s failed telecommunications business.
But it was McGrath’s refusal to change her opinion about a controversial ballot proposal on infrastructure spending that ultimately ended McGrath’s career at City Hall. “I was told if I didn’t change my legal opinion, I would never get the support of the Republican party, and they were true to their word,” McGrath claims. “I know I lost my job [in the 2014 election] because I didn’t obey them, but I would do the same thing today.”
One thing McGrath doesn’t miss about her work for the city was having to enforce Surf City’s prohibition on medical-cannabis collectives. When activist (and former Weekly People Issue profile subject) Marla James attempted to open the Surf City Collective in Sunset Beach, it fell on McGrath to do everything in her power to prevent that from happening. (Among other tactics, the city once parked an unoccupied police cruiser in front of the collective to intimidate people from entering the dispensary.) “When we shut down Sunset Beach, and all was said and done, I looked at Marla and said, ‘I really don’t want to put you in jail.’ And we stayed connected.”
McGrath also kept in touch with James’ attorney, Matthew Pappas; after a brief stint as a city attorney in Northern California, she immediately gave him a call upon her return to Orange County. She now works with Pappas to help cannabis collectives follow the law. “That’s my part of the practice, getting us all compliant on every level, code to payroll taxes—all of it,” she says.
McGrath has already helped activists in Stanton gather enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to overturn the city’s ban on medical-marijuana collectives. “What we’re fighting for is to make medical cannabis legal, city by city,” she explains. “The people of California have already decided that recreational cannabis is legal, so how can medical use even be a question? People who need it should get it, and there shouldn’t be an obstacle.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).