April 20 2016 01:42 PM

Even after spending $1 million, San Diego potrepreneur sits on a legal fence

Ebon Johnson, owner of Mankind Cooperative, shows his product.
Photo by Torrey Bailey

More than 30 clear containers with various strains of sativa, indica and hybrids—with names such as Mr. Nice Guy, Sour OG and Lemon Diesel—are perched on shelves bordering the room. Each case has a magnifying glass for patients to inspect the product and a removable cover so they can get a sample sniff. Beneath the shelves are sealed, prepackaged quantities of the corresponding medicinal strain. Employees and security guards chat with patients next to walls hung with 75 varieties of edibles and photos of crystallized purple petals.

This isn’t a roadside stem stand. It’s Mankind Cooperative, and a lot of money has been poured into this project. Almost a million dollars, according to the owner, which is about the average investment for acquiring a Conditional Use Permit, the golden ticket to a licensed, legal medical marijuana storefront in San Diego County. The key word here is licensed. There is a difference between being legal and licensed. Many shops around town are legal within state laws under Prop 215, or the Compassionate Use Act, and Senate Bill 420 (yes, that’s really the name). But, unless the dispensary is licensed with a CUP, it’s not in compliance with San Diego law.

“Even if you are operating under Prop 215, it doesn’t mean that the city or county has said it’s OK for you to operate,” said Linc Fish, co-owner of licensed dispensary Outlier Collective. “So, you aren’t licensed, and therefore I would say you are not legal. But, basically, the county has said it’s not okay for you to [just] be legal.”

Confused yet? Join the club.

Opening a licensed dispensary in San Diego is a lengthy, complex process for everyone, including 41-year-old Ebon Johnson, the owner of Miramar’s Mankind Cooperative. He’s taken a few tumbles in the industry in the past, including having a criminal record and an unlicensed dispensary that was shut down. Now, he is the only black, locally licensed dispensary owner. The licensed medical marijuana industry is overwhelmingly white and male dominated, with minorities arguably left out due to higher drug offense arrest rates. Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to numbers from the American Civil Liberties Union. If such an arrest results in a felony, it bars that person from opening a licensed dispensary. Do the math.

Johnson felt accomplished on June 18, 2015, when his CUP was approved. But just seven days later his house, where he was running a delivery service, was raided, and his product was seized without much explanation, even though he showed his license. One month later, the police returned to arrest him.

“[My neighbors] had no idea, and the police tried to come in my house and embarrass me at 6 o’clock in the morning so they could arrest me and show all the neighbors that there was a criminal here,” Johnson claimed.

He was arrested on two felony counts, one for the transportation of more than 28.5 grams of marijuana and the second for possessing marijuana with the intention of selling it.

It may seem that a delivery service constitutes criminal charges, but Deputy City Attorney Shannon Thomas made a statement in front of the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhood Committee on July 16, 2014 that stated the opposite.

“Delivery is a form of transportation of medical marijuana. And transportation is a crime for which a qualified patient or caregiver can claim a defense under the Medical Marijuana Program Act or the Compassionate Use Act, so we’d basically be criminalizing what the state has already said an individual may have a defense for,” Thomas said.

Since the city does not regulate other deliveries, like pizza, it does not have a “rational basis” for regulating dispensary deliveries, she said.

So, why raid Johnson? “I don’t know if it was racially motivated, but there was no benefit to the city of San Diego to do what they did,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that would have happened to a regular candidate, especially since the city already said they do not regulate delivery services. So, I could put two and two together, but who would know.”

By “regular candidate,” Johnson means a white guy.

Neither the city nor the District Attorney’s Office would comment on an ongoing case for which a preliminary exam has not yet been held.

City Attorney spokesman Gerry Braun said Thomas’ memo is being revised “to clarify that only licensed, permitted dispensaries should be able to run marijuana delivery services within the City of San Diego,” specifically banning house-run delivery services like Johnson’s. After the revision, Braun expects it will go to the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee before summer for a hearing and then on to the city council.

Local marijuana attorney Michael Cindrich said cases like Johnson’s often go to trial as a way for the District Attorney’s Office to show its adverse opinion toward medical marijuana, but within doing that, he said the office also shows its inexperience with the laws.

“Most members of law enforcement do not have a clear understanding of medical marijuana laws, and the majority of district attorneys who prosecute these cases do not have a thorough understanding of California medical marijuana laws,” Cindrich said.

Cindrich said the arresting officer in Johnson’s case previously testified to incorrect information regarding the sale of medical marijuana in a 2014 case that Cindrich defended.

If Johnson’s case goes to trial, he would have to pay for additional legal fees, which would add to his $30,000 bail and lost product revenue from the raid, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars he put into getting licensed. In an attempt to put this behind him, Johnson at first considered a plea agreement that would render the felonies as misdemeanors. But that misdemeanor would have, in turn, also restricted him from opening a licensed storefront.

For now, Johnson is trying to figure out where he stands with the law. He’s also trying to keep his business afloat against the competition from all the unlicensed dispensaries that don’t pay increased rent, employee tax and many other fees that a licensed storefront does.

“I just want people to know what happened because it’s shameful,” Johnson said. “We went and spent $800,000 to a million dollars to get to this position to be legal, and then the city doesn’t support us. I love this industry, I really do. I was meant for this industry.” And despite all the legal hurdles, he said he would do it all over again.


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