Ricardo Varona's Colorado Type Defense of Medical Pot Doesn't Work in Miami

Yesterday in this space, we noted the contrast between marijuana enforcement across the country, where pot-related arrests take place every 45 seconds by one estimate, versus Colorado, a state that's seen the rate of busts fall by more than 90 percent since the 2012 passage of Amendment 64, which legalized limited recreational marijuana sales.

Another example of the differences from state to state when it comes to cannabis: In recent days, Ricardo Varona was convicted in Miami for fifteen marijuana plants he said he was growing in order to provide medicine for his ailing wife.

Despite a defense bolstered by a medical marijuana patient and ganjapreneur with a Colorado background, Varona now faces at least three years in prison for trafficking.

The Miami Herald, which offered the best coverage of the Varona case that we've found, synopsizes the marijuana laws in the state like so: "In Florida, the Legislature this year authorized a low-grade strain of marijuana to treat a small number of ailments, including cancer. In October, the state will hash out which growers will be allowed to cultivate the plants; patients will likely be able to get access to marijuana sometime early next year."

Varona didn't wait. In July 2014, he was arrested for a grow located in the second-floor bedroom of his home in the Miami-Dade area. The fifteen plants, maintained via a hydroponic operation, weighed 103 pounds and would have yielded thirty pounds of "usable marijuana," the Herald reports, adding that prosecutors argued that "the $90,000 worth of weed was simply too much for one person’s consumption."

In response, Varona's attorneys presented what the Herald characterizes as a unique defense for South Florida. They argued that the marijuana was being used in food made for his wife, Maria, who had previously been diagnosed with cancer; other medication for the disease made her nauseous. At this point, she is said to be free of cancer, but she testified that she continues to travel to Colorado in order to buy cannabis-based medication as a preventative measure, since the disease runs in her family.

Also testifying was Bruce Vanaman, who is identified by the Herald as "a Colorado cancer patient who has become a successful marijuana businessman, operating numerous farms across the country."

Vanaman's LinkedIn page lists him as the owner of Rocky Mountain Medicinal Cannabis in Colorado Springs, but it doesn't appear to have been updated recently. His more-active Facebook page identifies him as the owner-operator of Green Cross Cannabis Centers of Florida and owner of Cannabis Management and Development.

Circa 2011, Vanaman was interviewed about the use of medical marijuana to treat his own cancer. Here's that clip:

At Varona's trial, Vanaman said his Colorado operation has yielded 1.5 million pounds of cannabis. In his view, Varona's grow wasn't commercial. He called it a "garden." He also scoffed at prosecutors' estimate for how much marijuana could be culled from the plants.

As for the assertion that the fifteen plants produced too much marijuana to support the personal-use argument, similar claims have been made by prosecutors in Colorado courts, and not always successfully. Recall the 2012 case of Colorado Springs' Bob Crouse, a cancer patient who was charged with cultivation and distribution for exceeding the state's plant limit; he had 75 plants. However, attorney Rob Corry successfully argued that he needed that number of plants in order to produce Phoenix Tears, a cannabis-oil treatment that appeared to be having a positive effect on his chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Crouse was acquitted.

Not Varona. A jury found him guilty of trafficking and running an illegal marijuana growhouse. The Herald notes that a three-year sentence on these charges represents the mandatory minimum.

This punishment will likely shock Coloradans accustomed to a different approach to justice regarding marijuana. But we suspect there are plenty of other states that would have treated Ricardo Varona in a similar manner — and that's appalling to the Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell.

"It's unacceptable that police still put this many people in handcuffs for something that a growing majority of Americans think should be legal," Angell said about the high number of cannabis arrests that continue to take place for our aforementioned September 28 post. "There’s just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes and robberies go unsolved."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts