A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ruled last week that enough evidence exists for Charles Jeff Restivo — part owner and operator of a medical marijuana dispensary called Pacific Coast Collective (PCC) — to be tried on felony charges of cannabis cultivation and possession with intent to sell.
Judge Clifford Anderson presided over the preliminary hearing, which wrapped up Thursday, September 9.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota argued that there is sufficient reason to believe Restivo neglected to follow Attorney General guidelines regarding the lawful operation of medical marijuana dispensaries. By making use of recorded interviews, court testimony, and PCC’s own records — or lack thereof — Cota attempted to show that Restivo’s management of PCC had fallen far short of the bar set by the state for a collective’s legal operation. As evidence, Cota pointed to PCC’s alleged willingness to buy from “anyone who came through the door with a backpack full of marijuana” — potentially violating the state’s prescribed member-as-supplier model — and Restivo’s alleged failure to keep accurate and verifiable records detailing where his supply was coming from. Cota also took issue with PCC’s inability to ensure that its suppliers were not profiting from the sales, or potentially providing marijuana that had been procured on the black market to its members.
Restivo’s defense attorney, Los Angeles-based lawyer Allison Margolin, held a different view. Margolin, who bills herself as “L.A.’s Dopest Attorney” and specializes in defending clients charged with drug-related crimes, asserted Restivo had gone out of his way to ensure that his actions and the operation of his collective were in accordance with both state and city law. As evidence, she pointed to numerous examples of Restivo jumping through the necessary bureaucratic hoops, such as acquiring both a business and seller’s license, paying sales tax, and having an attorney draw up articles of incorporation, organizational bylaws, and a membership agreement. She also questioned the prosecution’s seemingly strict interpretation of the Attorney General’s guidelines, arguing that Restivo and the collective had been “substantially compliant” and should therefore not have been subject to arrest or prosecution.
The impetus for the raid on Pacific Coast Collective, as well as a number of other local medical marijuana dispensaries, stemmed from an investigation following the February arrest of Santa Barbara local, Glen Mowrer III. Mowrer, previously an operator of his own marijuana dispensary, was arrested during a traffic stop when police discovered he was carrying more than 20 pounds of the drug in the trunk of his car. When asked to explain the stash, Mowrer allegedly indicated that he grew marijuana for a number of local collectives, and when pressed, admitted in some way that he was profiting from it. Law enforcement officials would later use Mowrer’s statements as the basis for requesting a number of search warrants, one of which was issued for Restivo.
For his part, Restivo continues to insist that he felt he was doing everything required of him under the law. Throughout the hearing, both he and his defense attorney repeatedly emphasized that every member of his collective had a valid medical marijuana recommendation, and had signed the necessary membership agreement. He did, however, admit while under cross-examination there appeared to be “gray areas” in the guidelines, specifically referring to the extent to which it was necessary for collectives to ensure that their members were actually growing the supply themselves and not procuring it from an outside source. When challenged on his questionable record keeping — in which his employees identified suppliers with a first name or nickname only — he pointed to the fact that medical marijuana dispensaries remain illegal according to federal law, and that he had a duty to protect his members’ privacy in light of the ever-present threat of prosecution from federal authorities.
Ultimately, Judge Anderson decided he had heard enough to move forward. When issuing his decision, he acknowledged that while Restivo had clearly gone through many of the steps required by the Attorney General guidelines, he “fell far short in one respect.” Anderson asserted that he was unimpressed with the defense’s explanation for the collective’s rather unorthodox record-keeping procedures, and insisted that at the very least Restivo should have been soliciting more information.
The next chapter in The People v. Restivo will open with an arraignment scheduled for November 5 — three days after California is set to vote on Proposition 19, a measure whose passage would legalize marijuana for personal use under state law. When asked to comment on the initiative’s potential impact on Restivo’s case, Cota would say only that “it will be a consideration” and that “legally, I don’t think it will change our ability to prosecute the case.” He did however acknowledge that the arraignment was specifically scheduled for after the election. As such, it remains to be seen what effect, if any, the potential passage of Prop. 19 might have on those cases, like Restivo’s, already working their way through the courts.
Chris Meagher and Tyler Hayden contributed to this report.