Orange County Corruption


In May 2015 a Santa Ana, California police SWAT team raided Sky High Holistic a patient collective operating a storefront dispensary. While serving the search warrant the SWAT police began to destroy all visible security cameras, however they missed a hidden camera attached to a separate security system. The secondary camera system worked exactly as it was intended as it documented the destruction by Santa Ana police and much more. The video which was released in an edited form by the attorneys of Sky High Holistic two weeks after the raid appeared to show police dressed in military clothing smashing the main security cameras. Also in the originally released video you could hear officers joking about patients present at the dispensary at the time of the raid including a female officer boasting of her urge to physically assault an amputee in a wheelchair. The bombshell of the hidden camera footage lies not in the violent nature of the SWAT team assaulting and insulting Sky High Holistic and its patients or that they took the time to play a game of darts. The astonishing security footage shows police officers allegedly eating cannabis infused candies shortly after disabling the main security camera system in the store. The release of this edited video created a stir nationwide as the actions of the police were called into question by many. Within a few weeks the buzz surrounding the raid and the alleged misconduct by the SWAT team conducting it had died down but the story was far from over. A handful of intertwined lawsuits, legal actions and corruption allegations have turned Santa Ana into a hotbed of cannabis activism.

On May 26, 2015 a Santa Ana Police Department SWAT team executed a search warrant at Sky High Holistic, a patient operated collective in the city. During the ensuing action police were caught on a video physically destroying the location that Sky High operated. The video also shows police allegedly consuming cannabis infused edibles while playing darts. Within hours of the raid the video was posted and went viral causing cannabis advocates and many others to cry out against the action. Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido went on record saying he was, “Very unhappy with what I saw.” Dispensary raids were not uncommon in Santa Ana in the year running up to the Sky High Holistic action. Though California law allows for patients to create collective groups the city of Santa Ana requires those collectives to be licensed locally. During the 2014 election Santa Ana residents voted to enact Measure BB which was a system to select and license dispensaries in the city. It called for a lottery system to select applicants at random to receive one of 20 licenses the city would grant.  630 entries to the lottery were bought making the city in excess of $1 million of application fee revenue, the lottery was held in February of 2015. Sky High Holistic was not among the twenty chosen licenses however they continued to operate as did many of the dispensaries not selected. There was a lawsuit filed to block Measure BB on the grounds that it was too restrictive to where these shops could be located which caused the state to place a hold on the licensing process creating a grey area that holdover shops were operating under. Another lawsuit simultaneously claimed that the lottery process itself was unfair and poorly operated creating delays in the licensing process. This suit claims that some applicants were “stacking the deck” by purchasing multiple lottery entries. It also goes on to decry the process by which applications for the lottery were vetted. Many of the winners were unprepared to fulfill the licensing obligations which created further delay to the process. Nearly seven months after the lottery only two licenses have been finalized by the City.

In June Sky High Holistic joined in with a lawsuit of their own against the city, this one much more direct and personal than either of the actions attempting to reverse Measure BB. The lawsuit filed by Sky High was directed at not only the individual police that caused over $100,000 in damages at their location, but at the mayor of Santa Ana as well. In the suit they claim that the order for the raid came directly from Mayor Miguel Pulido after he accepted a bribe from a competing cannabis collective. The attorney for Sky High, Matthew Pappas, held a press conference after the lawsuit had been filed with the court claiming he has, “paper evidence” and “witness proof” to support all the claims. Pulido went on record with the Orange County Register saying the claims were “preposterous” and “unequivocally false.  Both sides will be argued in front of a judge at a later date but for now Sky High Holistic is still operating and Pulido is a year into his 11th term as Mayor of Santa Ana.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in federal court by Pappas on behalf of Sky High, the unedited video of the raid was released as a part of the investigation started by the city into the claims of destruction and corruption. Days after the unedited video was released showing that police were likely eating cannabis infused products Sky High Holistic was raided again, this time much more quietly, and for the most part it was unknown to the cannabis community outside of Santa Ana. The Sky High Holistic legal team is adamant that this second raid conducted in July was a targeted operation not a broad attempt to close unregulated collectives in the city. “This is retaliation,” said Matthew Papas in an interview with the Orange County Register, claiming the action was targeted in response to the lawsuit against the mayor and the release of the full video incriminating police in the original raid.  Santa Ana Police spokesperson Cpl. Anthony Bertagna refuted that claim stating that other warrants had been served throughout the city and saying, “It’s illegal to operate a dispensary in Sanata Ana. If you operate a dispensary, you are subject to the law.”

While that may have been the end of the raids the legal battle did not end at the July closure. In August the Santa Ana Police Officers Association filed for a restraining order on behalf of three officers suspended for misconduct. The SAPOA restraining order would seek to prevent the Internal Affairs investigators from using the video released after the May raid at Sky High Holistic as evidence in the misconduct investigation. The officers claimed that footage was a violation of their privacy as they had disabled the surveillance system and moved all customers outside they had a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. However Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer released a three-page ruling against the officers stating that they did not have reasonable expectation to privacy as they were on duty as public servants at the time.

Santa Ana, California is in for a long battle between the city which seeks to regulate the medical cannabis market and the patients and collective managers who wish to maintain it the way it is. The collectives are following state law however state law says that cities and towns that have ordinances regulating cannabis production and distribution in place by March 1, 2016 can regulate the market locally as well. The fate of the collective system in Santa Ana hangs in the balance while the lawsuits are argued against Measure BB, the city, and the mayor. The survival of Measure BB would spell the end of many of the organizations who have operated efficiently for years, while its defeat would mean that state law is the only guideline to follow. Sky High Holistic is not the only collective in Santa Ana at risk of being shut down for good but due to a well placed backup security system they have helped to expose the corruption and thuggery of elected and public official in the city and have taken the lead in the fight for patient access. The results of their fight could set precedent for other groups facing similar actions in the future.