It was approximately 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 2 when four shots rang out in the parking lot in front of Orange County's first city-licensed medical-marijuana dispensary. The victim, a manager of South Coast Safe Access, located in the 1900 block of Warner Avenue, had just wrapped up his shift and was sitting in the driver's seat of his vintage Mercedes when the first shot grazed his shoulder. As the shooter, a young Latino in a hooded sweat shirt, approached the car, he fired again. The second shot nicked the victim's hip; the third shot missed. The fourth bullet lodged in the victim's liver.
“I'm the luckiest man in the world,” the victim, who asked not to be identified by name, told the Weekly in a recent interview after being released from the hospital, where he had been placed in a medically induced coma. He didn't recognize his attacker, and he has no idea why the man shot him nor any explanation—beyond divine intervention—for why he survived the assault. “Jesus Christ lifted me up in his arms and saved me.”
Standing at the entrance to the dispensary when the attack occurred was a security guard, but in compliance with Santa Ana's regulations for licensed pot clubs, he wasn't armed. In the victim's view, had the guard been carrying a gun, the shooting would have never happened. “My guy would have plugged him,” he explained.
Besides the fact that the words “safe access” are specifically included in the dispensary's name, there's an added irony. Just a week before he was shot, the victim was in Santa Ana City Hall, desperately pleading with the city to change its policy and allow armed guards to protect licensed dispensaries, which, because of the continuing federal ban on marijuana transactions, operates on a strictly cash basis. “With the amount of cash we have, you are asking for us to get robbed,” he said. “Why wouldn't they want qualified armed guards in these establishments? I just don't get it. It seems crazy to me that they wouldn't.”
The question of why Santa Ana has insisted on not allowing armed guards to protect licensed dispensaries didn't just occur to the victim shortly before he was shot. In fact, he brought up the issue in an interview with the Weekly nearly a year ago, just a few months after city voters passed a Nov. 4, 2014, measure to legalize pot clubs. The interview took place in the offices of the victim's lawyer, Randall Longwith, who helped draft the successful ballot measure. In the process of describing how South Coast Safe Access would emphasize customer service, with an open-space environment similar to an Apple Store, the future shooting victim quickly added, “We will have armed security outside the store.”
When Longwith informed him the city was prohibiting armed guards and that dispensaries would have to lobby to change that, the victim stated that it would be his top priority. “This is one of the first things that really needs to be modified for the safety of the patients and employees—everybody,” he said. “It's plain and simple.”
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Although a Feb. 5 lottery resulted in a total of 20 dispensaries being allowed to apply for a city license, 10 months later, Santa Ana city officials have only approved a total of three permits. (Attorney Christopher Glew, who represents several lottery winners, estimated that by Jan. 1, 2016, closer to 10 dispensaries, which are in the final stages of approval, would be open for business.) As the Weekly has previously reported, controversy has embroiled the city's pot lottery from the moment the balls popped out of the machine because, while the city limited the number of street addresses where pot clubs could operate within city limits, it allowed an unlimited number of paperwork corporations and partnerships to apply for each one. Thus, the city received 648 applications and raked in more than $1 million in fees. Eyewitnesses described tough-looking characters arriving in flashy cars with their girlfriends, hauling shopping bags full of cash to pay for the $1,490-per-lottery-ball application fee (see “Exactly Who Won Santa Ana's Medical-Marijuana Lottery,” July 1). In June, the Weekly reported allegations of attempted influence peddling by Pulido's personal attorney and former Orange County Democratic Party chairman Frank Barbaro, as well as aggressive solicitation of campaign donations by both Pulido and powerful Democratic Party operative Melahat Rafiei, whose brother was among the 20 lottery winners.
Controversy has also surrounded the city's crackdown on noncompliant pot dispensaries, which are operating in Santa Ana without licenses. According to Corporal Anthony Bertagna, a Santa Ana Police Department public-information officer, roughly 20 such clubs exist. One of them, Sky High Holistic, made international headlines in June, when security-camera footage captured several officers apparently eating pot edibles, throwing darts and insulting paraplegic activist Marla James. Through their union, the officers, who were subjected to an ongoing internal-affairs investigation and have yet to be disciplined, unsuccessfully fought to prevent the footage from being used against them.
Even after the embarrassing incident with the edibles, police continued to raid Sky High Holistic, going so far as to turn off the dispensary's electricity. According to James, although the collective was forced to shut down, it is trying to reopen. She and several other volunteers who were arrested during the infamous raid face misdemeanor charges for violating the city's pot measure and a Dec. 22 arraignment. “The lottery was a farce,” James said. “They are making this such a headache; it just sickens me.”
Meanwhile, Ivan Nathanson, one of the many lottery applicants who couldn't afford to pay for dozens of balls and failed to win, has sued Santa Ana, alleging the lottery was inherently unfair because the city signed off on applications that weren't filed in time and went on to win the lottery. On June 19, Orange County Superior Court Judge David R. Chaffee ruled that the lawsuit could go forward, but he denied a request by Nathanson's attorneys to halt any legalization efforts until the lawsuit could be heard.
“I don't mind getting beat fair and square,” Nathanson said. “But when you have people in the lotter,y and they filed with the state on the 21st [of February], and the lottery was held a week earlier on the 15th, they shouldn't be there. It doesn't take a huge staff to find out.” Although he blames the city for what happened, Nathanson insists he feels sympathy for lottery winners. “I feel bad for these guys,” he said. “They have spent half a million [dollars] to open up a building, and now what happens? Everybody gets screwed. But I feel bad for me, too. We should have had a fighting chance.”
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).