Coachella is trying to stub out a second marijuana church.
The east valley city is suing Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) of Orange County, saying ONAC has operated an illegal cannabis dispensary out of a storefront on Harrison Street since August 2017.
The ONAC lawsuit follows a similar battle between Coachella and Mien Tao Church, another unlicensed dispensary claiming to be a house of worship. Mien Tao, located across the street from ONAC, shut down in December after the court granted Coachella a lockout order.
The months-long legal procedures have cost the City of Coachella a lot of time and money, according to City Manager Bill Pattison. Was it worth it? “Yes, absolutely, because we needed to shut them down,” Pattison said.
The complaint against ONAC is similar to Coachella’s earlier lawsuit to shut down Mien Tao.
The ONAC case also names the dispensary’s landlord and a person it connects to the dispensary directly.
The landlord is identified as Tomer Tzadok, who owns the property through a company, and the director/officer of ONAC is identified as Thomas Nguyen. (ONAC did not return messages seeking comment. Both Nguyen and Tzadok could not be reached for this story.)
The showdown is an example of how state and local law are clashing in California in the age of cannabis. The drug might be legal statewide, but cities and counties still get to make their own rules about whether to welcome pot businesses or outlaw them.
The result is a patchwork of different local laws, in which a “pot friendly” city like Desert Hot Springs is located nearby unincorporated Riverside County land, where commercial marijuana operations are banned.
But if local governments want to shut down a marijuana businesses, they face a choice: Raid the premises or take the company to court.
Coachella is taking the suits-and-ties approach. In its volleys against Mien Tao and ONAC, Coachella is borrowing from a legal playbook that Riverside County has been wielding against illegal pot shops for years. The strategy is this: Sue the marijuana businesses, sue their managers and sue their landlords.
It’s a game plan that usually pays off, according to a review of more than a dozen government lawsuits against dispensaries between 2015 and 2017.
But while the pot shops close down, landlords and business owners don’t always pay the price of losing in court. As of January, Riverside County had obtained $7.6 million in judgments and settlements against illegal dispensaries, but it had collected only $589,806 from judgments and settlements – in part because some defendants can be hard to track down, according to county spokesperson Ray Smith.
It’s also difficult to keep dispensaries from opening up in a different location after they’re shut down. A new Mien Tao of appears to have relocated to Jurupa Valley, where reviews for their product began populating Weedmaps, an online directory of marijuana dispensaries, shortly after they were locked out of the Harrison Street premises. ONAC’s online presence for its Coachella location, meanwhile, has disappeared from Weedmaps.
While the dispensaries in Coachella have been shut down, nothing is preventing new, unlicensed businesses from opening in their stead. To prevent this, the city is hoping to penalize landlords for allowing unlicensed dispensaries to operate on their premises, but so far, neither of the two Coachella landlords have been ordered to pay the city for its expenses.
“The premises have been secured pursuant to the court order. The case is otherwise still pending,” said City Attorney Henry Welles of Best, Best & Krieger.