They were expecting this to happen, and they were ready.
The folks at Sky High Collective in downtown Santa Ana had heard that local police had begun aggressively raiding medical marijuana dispensaries like theirs, and that their day was likely coming. They trained their dozen or so employees in what to do if and when it happened—first, look after the safety of their patients, any one of whom could be seriously ill; second, comply with the officers’ orders and don’t say anything beyond telling them their names and birthdays. They had even kept around a patient advocate who volunteered in their lawyer’s office to help handle things if and when it all went down.
Still, when 12 officers charged in on May 26, some of them with their guns drawn and in masks and others with battering rams, it was a shock to employees and especially to the four or five patients there for what some call bud and others medicine. They were there on charges that the dispensary was operating without a proper business license, a misdemeanor, but according to witnesses, they were acting like they were gearing up to take down Tony Montana.
“The police behaved very animal-like when they entered the dispensary,” said Marla James, the patient manager that day and a woman who gets around in a wheelchair. “I kept asking them for the search warrant and they would not show it. They said, ‘When we are good and ready we will show you the search warrant.’”
“They were being bullies and I stand up to bullies. I know what my rights are and I know what the rights are for the patients too.”
The officers also seemed keen to ensure that there would be no record of their actions that day, quickly dismantling and destroying the video cameras that were mounted on the walls of the dispensary. Or at least they tried to: At the advice of their attorney, the Sky High purchased an additional camera, a “nanny cam” well hidden on a high shelf—so well hidden in fact that James declined to say where because they might need to use it again someday.
What that camera saw is now adding a new chapter to an ongoing and tragic American saga of the profoundly troubling behavior that some police officers engage in when they think no one is looking.
It saw one male and one female officer talking threateningly about James, who is missing her left leg. “Did you punch that one-legged old Benita?” asks the guy.
“I was about to kick her in her fucking nub,” the lady cop appears to reply.
So what did James do to rile the cops up so much? She told the truth and she exercised her legal rights.
“They had been asking me questions without reading me my rights,” she told The Daily Beast. “They wanted to know where the money was. I had no idea where the money was, and I told them that. That got them very upset. Then they asked me if I knew where the patient records were stored. I looked at them and said, ‘For me to give you any type of records would be a [Health Information Privacy Act] violation.’ Well, that got them even more pissed off at me.”
You know what would take the edge off a woman countering your strong-arm tactics with her knowledge of the law? Marijuana.
The camera that the police failed to disable appears to show three of the officers eating some of the chocolate edibles sold by the dispensary.
“What flavor?” says one of the officers before unwrapping some silver foil and popping something in his mouth.
According to James, who has knowledge of the dispensary layout and its products, the officer was consuming a portion of a Bhang Bar, which comes in over 10 flavors—from Cookies and Cream to Fire—and more significantly, four different potencies. Depending on how much one ingests, at least three of those potencies have the potentiality to render even the most seasoned of stoners drooling and in a fetal position.
With that in mind, perhaps the cops should be commended for what they were able to do next: They played a round of darts.
As brazen as the apparent behavior of officers that day is the argument being made by their lawyers. The three unidentified officers and their union are attempting to suppress the video’s use in ongoing disciplinary action against them by the city and police department.
In a lawsuit, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association and the three police officers argue that the video does not paint a fair version of events, and that it should not be allowed as evidence because the police had a reasonable expectation of privacy since they thought they had disabled all of the dispensary’s cameras.
“We believe that under California law, if you are being recorded, or eavesdropped on—which is the legal term for it—without your knowledge or consent, that it is illegal,” Corey Glave, the attorney representing the SAPOA and the three officers, told The Daily Beast. “Upon the direction of supervisors, all the cameras were disabled, so once those cameras were disabled, there was no expectation that there were any other cameras or that they were being recorded.”
There are signs all over Sky High saying that the premises is being recorded by video cameras, and not just clearly visible cameras.
“I don’t believe there is any difference,” says Glave. “If you walk into an establishment, and the sign says you are being recorded, and there are the cameras and you take down the cameras, the fact that you didn't know about a secret camera means nothing different, you are still being illegally recorded.”
To say that Glave’s argument is raising eyebrows in the legal community is an understatement.
Amy Margolis, an attorney who specializes in cannabis law, said it was certainly an unusual defense.
“I will hand it to the lawyer that that is an extremely creative argument, but beyond that, it is absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “The bottom line is, if they had not behaved so poorly, they would not be concerned about their privacy being violated.”
Margolis, who is involved in the Dispensary Rules Advisory Board and the Better People panel on the state of medical marijuana, added: “If they had come in, served the search warrant, let the woman in the wheelchair wheel herself out, and they didn’t eat some edibles and play a game of darts, they would have no need to be asserting this claim. They are only asserting a claim of privacy because they are so ashamed of their behavior.”
It’s almost funny, especially if you weren’t in the dispensary that day, or if you didn’t have to defend Sky High against the charges. (An arraignment on the misdemeanor charges, which carry a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $500 fine, is set for Monday, August 10.)
“This whole idea that there is a right to privacy to violate the law is absolutely nuts,” says Matt Pappas, the lawyer for Sky High, who sees the aggressive tactics of police in this case as emblematic of how dispensaries are being treated throughout Southern California. “The fact that they missed certain cameras does not vitiate the right of the business to be videotaping and have their video surveillance going. They don’t have some extra right of privacy because they are police officers.”
A spokesperson for the Santa Ana Police Department, who are defendants in the case brought by the police union, did not return The Daily Beast’s repeated calls for comment.
It turns out, cops do not have the super human ability to resist the effects of Bhang Bars.
According to Marla James, who has seen the entirety of the tape several times, the portion that has yet to be made public may be the most damning, if perhaps the most boring.
Sometime after the three officers apparently consumed the edibles, one of them discovered a top that was in the dispensary and put it on the counter and started spinning it on the counter top. When it tipped over and stopped, one of them would pick it up and start spinning it again.
“This went on for, like, 15 minutes,” says James. “They just stared at the thing while it spun on the counter.”