Two traffic stops. Two cars reeking of weed and loaded with marijuana. Two months of investigation. No charges.
In both cases, the drivers said they were transporting medical marijuana legally for a nonprofit collective called True Wellness Delivery.
The case hasn’t yet been referred to the Orange County District Attorney for prosecution, and it remains to be seen if charges will be filed. As with dispensaries -- brick-and-mortar pot shops through which some collectives sell the drug -- the laws surrounding marijuana nonprofits are murky and sometimes conflicting.
In the old days, both drivers might have been busted on the spot. But in the drug war's new era, police often have to know as much about corporate records as criminal behavior.
On Oct. 26, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy B. Hall pulled over Joshua David Young, then 19, at Pacific Coast Highway and Doheny Park Plaza because of an unsafe lane change, according to court documents.
Hall smelled marijuana in the black Dodge Avenger, and Young, when asked, told the deputy he had some in the trunk and in a backpack on the passenger seat. He initially claimed it was for personal use, according to the documents.
But Hall found a binder full of patient information sheets with order information, amounts paid and $400 cash, according to court documents.
An OCSD investigator arrived at the scene and Young admitted the marijuana – divided into small quantities in a partitioned plastic box – was for delivery to medical marijuana patients, and he was a deliveryman for the True Wellness collective.
Case No. 2 occurred around 10:30 p.m. Dec. 21, when OCSD Sgt. M. Danciulescu pulled over Anthony Robert Engeln, 24, for a missing license plate on his 1999 Audi.
The court documents say Danciulescu noticed a “moderate odor” of marijuana in the vehicle. Engeln told him the pot was prescribed to treat his diabetes, and that he also delivered it to other medical marijuana patients for the True Wellness Delivery collective, according to court documents.
Engeln had nine one-eighth-ounce containers of marijuana he said he was delivering to a patient, the documents state.
At the time of the stop, Engeln wouldn’t admit to running the collective, but in emails pulled off his phone – which was seized and searched under a warrant Dec. 27 – he referred to himself as the “owner,” according to court documents. And the collective's incorporation papers are registered in his name.
Deputies noted Engeln didn’t indicate he was the primary caregiver for his delivery patients, a crucial point of law, officials say.
The October traffic stop was the first time the Laguna Niguel-based medical marijuana delivery service appeared on Sheriff’s Department radar, according to court documents. The investigation has rolled on for almost two months.
After deputies submitted their report on the December stop, they connected it with the stop of Young in October and began investigating True Wellness in earnest, involving the sheriff’s South Narcotics Detail to surveil the homes of Engeln and his parents, to follow his deliverymen and to stake out Young’s apartment on Marguerite Parkway in Mission Viejo.
Police raided Engeln's Laguna Niguel home Jan. 23, seizing about 3 pounds of marijuana packaged for storage and distribution, along with marijuana-laced foods, packaging materials, True Wellness' articles of incorporation as a nonprofit (as legally required for pot collectives), patient records with images of prescriptions and drivers’ licenses, and collective membership agreements, according to the search warrant affidavit filed by OCSD Deputy Matthew Anderson.
So far, no charges have been filed against Engeln or any other person connected with the collective. Two other men arrested in connection with the operation in late January were released without being charged.
Legal or not?
Much of the case against Engeln and three of his associates appears to rest on whether the patients he served list him or the others as “primary caregivers,” a distinction necessary for the marijuana transactions to be considered legal under state law. Also important is whether the group profited from the sale of the pot and how the cash was accounted for.
“Typically with these types of investigations, there’s a ton of paperwork,” said Lt. Doug Doyle of the Sheriff’s Department. “It takes a while to go through all the stuff. Once we have that together, we’ll take it over to the [Orange County District Attorney].”
The law and case precedent involving California marijuana collectives is still unclear and confusing. Deputy Anderson, who submitted the search warrant for Engeln's home, completed eight hours of special training about it. He took two classes, according to the warrant document: "Medical Marijuana: The Law, and Street Contact Investigations" and "Storefront Marijuana Sales/Cultivation Investigations."
Anderson has experience investigating other medical marijuana users and suppliers, he said in the search warrant documents.
Engeln wasn’t arrested at the time deputies executed the warrant, but two men who said they were his deliverymen were. Young was arrested Jan. 23 and posted bail the next day. Mitchell Anthony Santos, 21, stayed in jail five days until he was released when the D.A. “refused to prosecute,” according to online jail records.
D.A. spokeswoman Farrah Emami said prosecutors haven’t yet considered the True Wellness case because details have not yet been assembled and presented by sheriff’s deputies.
Santos and another person cited in the search warrant were the only people connected with True Wellness who have criminal records in Orange County other than traffic violations. Santos was on probation for a February 2012 charge of possession of marijuana and sale or transport of marijuana, according to court records.
One 27-year-old woman had her phone seized and searched in connection with the True Wellness investigation, but has not been arrested or charged in the case.
The collective has retained lawyer Damian Nassiri of Los Angeles' Cannabis Law Group. He was involved in a precedent-setting lawsuit against the city of Lake Forest when it attempted to outlaw pot shops, according to his website.
Nassiri said his clients instructed him not to comment to the media on the case.