Whoever was driving the white Honda Civic looked like he was in a rush. Traffic was light in the northbound lane of Highway 101, so California Highway Patrol officers J.A. Slates and C. Cotroneo had no trouble spotting the speeding vehicle. In the southbound lane, Slates slammed on the brakes, swerved through the grassy median and pulled a screeching U-turn, burning rubber. Cotroneo switched on the radar, clocked the Honda pushing 80 mph, turned on the lights and hit the sirens.
At 8:58 p.m. on June 28, 2009, near the Mendocino County town of Ukiah, the Honda pulled over to the side of the freeway and rolled to a stop. As Slates approached the car, he noticed the driver “making furtive movements,” according to his police report. He walked up to the passenger-side window, which the driver then rolled down to surrender his driver’s license, at which point, Slates would later claim, he smelled a strong odor of marijuana.
Slates escorted the driver to the patrol car and searched the Honda, quickly finding “several marijuana joints in the ashtray, a burnt joint in the front passenger seat, two green containers of marijuana next to the ashtray, a white bag containing four green containers of marijuana, four smaller clear containers of hashish, three marijuana pipes with residue, miscellaneous marijuana paraphernalia and an unused pipe.”
The driver, Mark Gregory Moen, claimed he was tired because he’d been driving for 10 to 11 hours. He freely admitted he had smoked pot a few hours earlier and handed the officers a prescription allowing him to smoke medical marijuana under California’s Compassionate Use Act. Moen volunteered to take a field sobriety test, which he passed.
But when the two officers ran Moen’s license through their laptop computer, they discovered he was wanted in connection with a 3-year-old burglary in Orange County. After placing him under arrest, the officers prepared to have his car towed into town. That’s when Moen told Slates he needed something from the trunk: $72,000 in cash.
Slates confiscated the money and put in an alert to the Mendocino County Major Crimes Task Force. He suspected Moen was likely rushing to Humboldt County to purchase marijuana and knew there was a good chance the task force could confiscate the cash. What Slates had no way of knowing was that he’d just busted the owner of what many believe was the biggest medical-marijuana dispensary in Orange County history.
* * *
From the looks of it, Orange County Men’s Jail inmate No. 2561040 has had a pretty tough weekend. Deep grooves in his forehead and concentric circles of worry lines that surround his eyes suggest he hasn’t been sleeping particularly well. Moen’s skin is sallow; his tousled, matted dark hair is specked with white and gray; and his teeth are looking a bit yellow. Moen, 50, is hunched over in evident discomfort behind a thick glass window, squirming on a small metal stool. He’s struggling to hold onto a telephone, which isn’t easy because both of his hands are restrained in handcuffs that are attached to a chain around his waist.
“I’m on the chain list,” he explains apologetically, after the phone slips off his right shoulder midsentence. The chains are a security precaution courtesy of his past criminal record, which included several stints in prison for burglary that led to an unfortunate habit of fighting in jail. “That happened a long time ago,” Moen says, wincing with embarrassment. “It wasn’t easy being the only white guy in jail, you know, but that’s no excuse. That’s not who I am now, though. I’m a different person, but they won’t even let me brush my teeth. I haven’t had a comb or a toothbrush in four days!”
Moen has been behind bars since March 5, 2010, the day several sheriff’s deputies raided 215 Agenda, Moen’s now-defunct marijuana dispensary in Lake Forest, for the second time in several months. Prosecutors charged him with 38 felony counts of money laundering, one felony count of possession of money amounting to more than $100,000 obtained from illegal sales of marijuana, three felony counts of selling marijuana, and one count of possessing marijuana with the intent to sell.
In retrospect, the Ukiah bust last June was a harbinger of a series of unfortunate incidents for 215 Agenda. The next one happened about 11:45 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2009, as Moen was driving through Huntington Beach. Moen was fiddling with the global-positioning device on his dashboard when a cop pulled him over for swerving on the road. Just as in Ukiah, the cop smelled pot and searched the car. Although he allowed Moen to drive away after examining paperwork showing that Moen owned a pot dispensary, he searched the vehicle first and confiscated another $145,000 in cash, which Moen claimed was the proceeds of roughly eight days of business.
The capture of that money led directly to an investigation by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department aimed at taking down 215 Agenda. At its peak, by Moen’s own estimation, the dispensary served some 200 customers per day. For the next month, sheriff’s investigators monitored the dispensary and sent at least one undercover deputy carrying a doctor’s note into the club to buy pot. On Nov. 13, 2009, deputies raided 215 Agenda and another Lake Forest dispensary, the Health Collective; confiscated financial records and patient information; and arrested both Moen, who bailed out of jail the next morning, and the Health Collective owner Steven Wick.
On March 5, deputies raided 215 Agenda again, this time arresting Moen and two store managers, Robert Adam Moody and Marco Enrique Verduzco, both 23. The sheriff’s search warrant from the second raid noted that 215 Agenda had placed advertisements in OC Weekly for “free marijuana” for first-time customers who mentioned the ad, which boasted, “We Carry the Best Weed in the entire World!”
* * *
A few weeks after Moen’s arrest, a California voter initiative that would legalize the possession and sale of marijuana—not just by medical marijuana patients or caregivers, but by anyone—qualified for the November ballot after the Drug Policy Alliance gathered more than 600,000 signatures in support of the proposed law. An April poll by SurveyUSA shows that 56 percent of California residents support legalization.
If that law passes, and assuming Moen hasn’t already taken some kind of plea bargain, it’s unclear what effect the law will have on the DA’s case against him. But while time may be running out for prosecutors intent on putting cannabis clubs such as 215 Agenda out of business, Moen is still in the unenviable position of being at the center of what is shaping up to be a test case for the DA’s zero-tolerance policy on prosecuting medical-marijuana “dealers.”
Orange County has never been exactly friendly to medical-marijuana activists. Shortly after California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 215 in 1996, legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes, Marvin Chavez and David Herrick tried to organize a legitimate cannabis collective, speaking at council meetings in Garden Grove and other cities. In return, prosecutors immediately went to work building cases against them, using undercover cops posing as patients to orchestrate marijuana sales. Two separate juries convicted the activists, neither of whom was allowed to mention Prop. 215 in his defense, and both ultimately served prison time (see “Marvin Chavez: Man of the Year,” Jan. 7, 1999, and “Redemption Song,” Dec. 23, 1999).
In the past year, dozens of marijuana dispensaries and delivery services have opened across Orange County. That pales in comparison with the estimated thousands of similar clubs that have set up shop in Los Angeles, where City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has spearheaded an effort to shut down any dispensary that sells marijuana. As Moen’s arrest makes clear, OC has no intention of being outpaced by LA in cracking down on potheads.
Moen is the first person to admit that selling marijuana—and selling it cheap—is exactly what 215 was all about. “I had no idea 215 Agenda would get so big,” he says. “But nobody had ever heard of $50 eighths, and that’s what we offered. There’s a reason we had 5,000 patients. Wouldn’t you want to get your weed as cheaply as possible?”
Moen is also quick to acknowledge that his lengthy rap sheet doesn’t exactly make him the ideal poster boy for medical marijuana. If convicted, thanks to various sentencing enhancements, including one stemming from the 2006 burglary case, Moen could spend the next four decades behind bars.
Of course, that’s assuming he’s crazy enough to actually fight this case in court rather than enter a guilty plea in return for a reduced sentence. Moen appears to be exactly that crazy. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he insists. “It would be a lie if I said I was guilty. I’m not taking any deal.”
A few weeks after Moen was arrested, Christopher Glew, a Santa Ana-based attorney who bears a striking resemblance to comedian David Cross of Arrested Development fame, is doing his best to wolf down a tuna-salad sandwich while answering a reporter’s questions about what Moen’s arrest means for Orange County’s medical-marijuana movement. Glew’s phone, buzzing incessantly, is lying on the table next to his sandwich. Unable to ignore it any longer, Glew finally takes the call; his eyebrows furrow as he listens to another of his clients, calling to say he’s about to be arrested. The client owns a dispensary in Costa Mesa, which is cracking down on cannabis clubs, raiding them at the rate of one or two per week.
“Just don’t say anything,” Glew instructs in a calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice. “No matter what, don’t answer any questions. If they’ve already raided you, that means they’ve already made up their mind that what you’re doing is illegal, so there’s no point in talking.”
As soon as Glew hangs up, his phone rings again, this time from another client whose club is also being raided. “If you’re not there, don’t go there,” he says. “Stay where you are.” Moments later, a third call comes in. “My advice would be to turn yourself in,” he suggests.
Once off the phone, Glew shakes his head. “I would never endorse a club that wasn’t willing to sit down with the DA to work something out,” he says. “But the problem is, the DA will always tell you what you’re doing wrong, but they’ll never say what you’re doing right. Everyone thinks what they are doing is legal, so why shouldn’t they talk? But in the 50 cases I’ve done, every single thing the clubs did to become legitimate was used against them.”
According to Glew, 215 Agenda is no exception. “I know Mark was trying to obey the law,” he says. “He says he was making monthly payments to the state board of equalization. If that’s true, that shows he was trying to operate within the law. They are picking on Mark because he’s an easy target. There are more raids going on than when the feds were involved. . . . It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Glew—who, like Moen and many other medical-marijuana-related businesses, advertises his services in the Weekly—handles an ever-growing roster of medical-marijuana cases, both criminal and civil. Earlier that morning, he’d sparred in court with a Lake Forest city attorney seeking to retroactively prohibit a dozen dispensaries from doing business there, including Moen’s now-shuttered 215 Agenda. “We are here lawfully asserting our police power right to defend the health and safety and public protection of the people of Lake Forest,” Jeffrey Dunne, representing the city, had told Judge David R. Chaffee. “Marijuana is illegal under federal law.”
Glew countered that because the city did not have an ordinance specifically outlawing cannabis clubs, it had no right to retroactively enforce such a ban. “Everything the collectives are doing is mandated by state law,” he argued. “The city is just making up this category of marijuana dispensaries to make them look bad. They don’t know what these clubs are because they are private. They’re not open to the public.”
Glew represents 215 Agenda and four other dispensaries in Lake Forest’s ongoing legal effort to run them out of town. Attorney Derek Bercher is handling Moen’s criminal case. “Mark is a good person,” Bercher argues. “He was trying to help people. He was trying to do a good thing in the right way, but he got caught up in the vagaries of the law.”
By “vagaries,” Bercher is referring to the fact that prosecutors are claiming that every bank deposit or payroll transaction Moen made on behalf of 215 Agenda is nothing short of laundering cash from drug sales. “Mark couldn’t have been more aboveboard,” Bercher says. “For a supposed criminal, he was hiding in plain sight. Everything was through banks. He was donating to charities and libraries. The DA has a view that you simply cannot distribute medical marijuana without running afoul of the law.”
The DA’s press release on the raid served as a warning to anyone else contemplating a high-volume marijuana dispensary in Orange County. “Distribution and sale of marijuana to individuals with a physician’s recommendation without any other relationship, such as through a dispensary, is not permitted under California law,” it states. “The three defendants are accused of selling marijuana to any person with a physician’s recommendation without any relationship to the purchaser and without requiring or requesting them to participate in collectively or cooperatively growing marijuana.”
Although some cannabis dispensaries try to stay on the good side of the law by insisting that all their marijuana is grown locally by club members—as opposed to being trucked south from Humboldt County, as in the case of 215 Agenda—Jeff Schunk, the deputy DA prosecuting Moen, believes that the law prohibits all dispensaries simply by virtue of the fact that they sell marijuana. “We believe what they are doing is illegal,” he argues, asserting that only a “primary caregiver” can provide marijuana to a patient. “The wording of the state law is what it is, and it means you have to have consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health or safety of the patient.”
Schunk insists his office isn’t out to get medical-marijuana smokers. “It is really well-established that if you have a valid recommendation from a licensed doctor and all indications are you possess marijuana for medical uses, there’s no reason for an arrest,” he says.
DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder refused to comment on the specifics of Moen’s case, but she stated that all cases handled by her office are “fact-driven” and examined on an individual basis. “We are looking at the facts and circumstances of each case,” she says. “It’s a fantasy to suggest that these people are being wrongfully prosecuted.”
The DA’s office and sheriff’s department are hardly the only agencies seemingly intent on putting medical-marijuana dispensaries out of business in Orange County. Among the cities that prohibit any such clubs from operating legally are Aliso Viejo, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills, Orange and Seal Beach. Lake Forest has filed the aforementioned civil suit to retroactively prohibit dispensaries, and Dana Point has filed a separate lawsuit to force dispensaries operating in that city to hand over all patient files.
Although Costa Mesa has yet to pass such an ordinance, the city has begun cracking down. On Feb. 4, police raided West Coast Wellness and arrested three people on suspicion of selling marijuana. On March 16, Mayor Allan Mansoor met with several medical-marijuana activists to discuss the city’s policy while cops simultaneously raided yet another dispensary, Doc’s, arresting its owner for selling pot.
Two of the activists in that meeting, Tracey Neria, an activist with Americans for Safe Access, and Kandice Hawes, the president of the Orange County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (OCNORML), organized an April 8 protest in front of the Superior Court building in Santa Ana to denounce the DA’s prosecution of dispensary owners, including Moen and Wick. (On April 6, Wick, 26, pleaded guilty to selling pot and possessing it with the intent to sell and received a three-year prison sentence, says Glew, who also represented Wick.)
“Those two collectives were the good ones in Lake Forest,” Hawes says as she waved at a passing motorist who slowed down to honk his support. “Both Mark and Steve really cared about the patients.”
* * *
Until he landed in jail, Moen had been living in the same one-story, three-bedroom house in Westminster in which he grew up, the one that witnessed his chaotic evolution from 1970s punk rocker and surf bum to present-day medical-marijuana martyr.
Moen grew up in Northern California but moved to Orange County during junior-high school. Because he lived so close to the beach, he would often ditch classes, hop on a bus and ride down Goldenwest Avenue to surf the bluffs north of the Huntington Beach pier.
He started using cocaine at age 16. “A lot of people in my high school had coke,” he says. “I liked it and started injecting it.” One time, a rich friend injected him with a mixture of coke and heroin. “He did that without telling me, but I liked it. You feel like God for a couple of seconds on coke, but then you feel really shitty. But with the heroin, you feel like you’re in the eddy of a stormy sea.”
When Moen turned 18 in the late 1970s, his parents divorced, and he moved in with his grandmother in Huntington Beach. He spent the next six years there, although he admits that most of the time, he wasn’t sleeping at his grandmother’s home, but rather in his Oldsmobile Delta 88, which he usually parked in Santa Monica. “I just surfed and skated,” Moen recalls.
Before long, Moen’s drug habit had led to several stints in jail. His parents disowned him, and he fell in with a group of surfers he describes as “basically a bunch of thieves who are now doing 25-to-life.” Their lifestyle consisted of surfing, shooting heroin and stealing money from other surfers.
By far the most karmic (and bizarre) arrest in Moen’s long history of burglaries was the time he was arrested for shoplifting at a Home Depot. “I tried to walk out of the store with a Moen water faucet so I could resell it for drugs,” he says, shaking his head at the absurdity. “Instead, I went to state prison.”
Moen met his wife in March of 1998, shortly after being released, and the two quickly fell in love. “On our first date, Mark came and picked me up, and then I pretty much ditched him,” Jennifer recalls. “I was using drugs at the time, and I wanted to protect him from that because I knew he was trying not to do that because he had just gotten out.” But it wasn’t long before both were using heroin together and getting in more trouble. In August 1998, the pair was convicted of stealing a car. Jennifer spent 120 days in jail, and Mark went back to state prison for a three-year sentence.
In the next eight years, Moen managed to hold down a grueling job as a pipe fitter for an oil refinery company, working more than 80 hours per week, and fathered three children: Justin, 7, Jacquelyn, 3, and Jagger, 1. Raising a family introduced some stability into his life, but only temporarily. Jennifer fell back into drug use after becoming addicted to painkillers after her first pregnancy. “From 2003 to 2006, things got pretty bad again,” she says. “But we ended up getting sober again.”
The burglary case that led to Moen’s arrest in Ukiah stemmed from this dark period in his life. Moen remembers little more than waking up in an office building he’d broken into the night before, shortly after he got into an argument with his wife and left the house in a drug-fueled rage. He hadn’t stolen anything that night, although he’d planned to, and apparently the police had finally traced him through DNA he unwittingly left at the crime scene.
That same year, Moen fell ill with hepatitis C and had to submit to weekly chemotherapy treatments that left him nauseated and unable to eat. “I lost 65 pounds, and my hair was falling out,” Moen says. His gastrointestinal doctor recommended he smoke marijuana to ease the nausea and increase his appetite. “I had to drive up to LA, and OG Kush was selling for $90 an eighth, which I couldn’t afford.”
His frustration with the high prices and long distances faced by patients in Orange County inspired him to form a collective closer to home. After spending months doing research at the Orange County law library and contacting various city agencies to inquire about applying for permits, Moen learned that the only city in the county where he could operate a cannabis club without a business license was Lake Forest. On April 20, 2009, Moen opened 215 Agenda in a somewhat-dilapidated storefront in a nondescript mini-mall off El Toro Road near Interstate 5.
Two factors helped ensure the club would be a success. First was the fact that 215 Agenda offered premium-quality cannabis for $50 an eighth instead of the $75 and more charged by most dispensaries in Orange County; the club audaciously advertised in the Weekly that first-time customers would receive a free “pre-roll” or joint or an edible marijuana product for joining up. Second was the dispensary’s proximity to the retirement community Leisure World, which quickly formed a solid customer base for Moen’s operation.
Before long, 215 Agenda was pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. “We had $50,000 per month going to Wells Fargo for payroll and $15,000 going to state taxes,” Moen says. “We gave free marijuana to every new patient and to every returning patient.” To meet his patients’ rising demand for medical marijuana, Moen drove north to Humboldt County in Northern California every two weeks to meet with growers who were members of his collective, returning to Orange County with up to $100,000 worth of marijuana per trip.
Everything went smoothly until late June 2009. Moen, who usually made the bimonthly trip north with a few friends, was going alone for the first time, and Jennifer was worried because of that and it was a long drive. “I woke up at some point in the night—around 3 in the morning—and called him, and he didn’t answer,” she says. “And I kept calling and he didn’t answer, so I knew something was wrong. Then he called me in the morning and said he’d been arrested for a warrant in Orange County.”
On Nov. 13, as deputies were raiding 215 Agenda, Jennifer was running errands. She called her husband at work and was told by him, “I’m getting robbed. There are people with ski masks coming through the door.” She called 911, and an operator promised to get back to her with any news. The next call she got was from her neighbor, who told her there were cops all over her house.
“They kicked my door in and just wrecked our house,” she says. “There wasn’t any money at the house, but they pulled out some of Mark’s plants and took all our computers and cameras.” Although deputies didn’t visit the house again on March 5, when they raided 215 Agenda the second time and arrested her husband, Jennifer says she constantly worries they will show up once more. “It’s scary,” she says. “It affects your security. It freaks you out.”
She’s not working and has three kids to take care of with little support from friends and family. Her older son has had trouble dealing with his dad’s arrest. He says he hates cops and that he’s tired of everyone telling him he has to take care of his mom. Although he’s doing well in school, he acts out at home and refuses to do his homework. “He’s just a kid,” Jennifer says. “He needs to be a kid, but he also needs to do his homework. Sometimes I freak out on the kids because it’s hard. Am I resentful? I cry every day. This has torn our family apart. I’m lost without [Mark] and don’t know how to pick up the pieces.”
* * *
Inside the Orange County Jail, Moen has been talking for nearly two hours and is still going strong, despite the phone constantly slipping from his shoulder and the metal chain around his waist riding up his back. “These things are biting into me,” he complains, shifting his weight on the small stool. Moen seems intent on confessing his sins, detailing his long history of drug addiction and criminal behavior with a palpable sense of shame. “The day I got arrested was my son Justin’s first day of Little League,” he says, tears welling up. “I used to play catch with him every day. If they give me 39 years, I’ll die in prison.”
Amazingly, of all the terrible things he’s done in his life that Moen regrets, the one that brings the most emotion to the surface seems remarkably banal. During the eight or so years Moen worked as a pipe-fitter, he says, he got to know a hard-working co-worker. “This guy was a Christian, and I used to give him a hard time about it,” Moen says. “He was such a nice guy, and I could be so mean. I insulted him, but he was always so happy. He worked so hard because he had six kids, and one day, he was driving home and was so tired he crashed his fucking car because he fell asleep driving home to see his family.”
As he tells the story, Moen breaks down into tears once more. “He changed my life,” he says. “He made my life better. I spoke at his funeral, and that’s what I said.” Moen puts his two handcuffed palms in front of his face and starts rubbing his eyes. “He made my life better. That’s what he taught me. Pass the goodness on to other people. That’s what I was trying to do, and that’s how I want people to remember me.”
This article appeared in print as “Marijuana Martyr: The arrest of 215 Agenda’s Mark Moen has OC’s medical-pot community wondering if it has a prayer of avoiding trouble with the cops.”
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).