FRESNO -- A federal jury found two Modesto men guilty Thursday of drug charges for operating a medical marijuana dispensary, which raked in $6 million to $9 million in less than two years.
Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Ruiz Montes, both 27, immediately were taken into custody.
Both men were convicted of manufacturing marijuana and distributing the drug, as well as operating a continuing criminal enterprise, a felony that carries a mandatory 20-year minimum prison term, with the possibility of life behind bars.
Jurors cleared each man on weapons charges but deadlocked on a conspir-acy charge. U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger scheduled a May 27 hearing, when the government will decide whether to retry the men on the conspiracy charge.
Anthony Capozzi, who represented Scarmazzo, said after the verdict that it was "an unfair prosecution," in which the federal government piled on criminal charges against two people who never intended to break the law.
"It's an injustice for these people to go away for 20 years," he said.
But U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said Montes and Scarmazzo's business had nothing to do with the medical use of marijuana.
"They were operating as drug dealers, plain and simple," he said in a telephone interview after the verdict.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden supported the jury's decision.
"I think it's a correct verdict," he said. "The jury validated this was a criminal enterprise."
In September 2006, federal authorities raided the California Healthcare Collective in Modesto after a long investigation that included undercover drug buys.
Scarmazzo and Montes said they never intended to break the law. The business, their attorneys said, was "aboveboard," obtaining a business license, paying taxes and making sure patients had doctors' notes before purchases.
"Everything the defendants did was legal under state law," Capozzi said after the verdict. But neither he nor Robert Forkner, who represented Montes, were able to use state law as a defense because under federal law, marijuana is illegal.
Prosecutors said federal law not only trumped state law, but the two men also violated state law because their business wasn't a nonprofit enterprise.
Defense attorneys offered evidence that the business was at one point transformed into a nonprofit, but prosecutors said Scarmazzo and Montes spent collective money for nonbusiness items, in addition to their salaries.
Among the items the two men bought were jet skis and a $180,000 Mercedes-Benz.
A key part of the trial was a hip-hop video that featured Scarmazzo uttering the line "(expletive) the feds."
Scarmazzo, a musician and aspiring hip-hop artist, took the stand to explain, saying it was his way of showing that the federal government "is turning a blind eye" to medical marijuana, which he said could help people.
The video was perhaps the most sensational part of the trial, and there were suggestions from Capozzi that Scarmazzo was on trial only because he dared to challenge the federal government's authority.
Jurors deliberated for two days before delivering their verdict.
One juror, Craig Will of Tuolumne County, said after the verdict that he expected the two men to get probation or a few months in prison.
"I'm really appalled to discover that there's a 20-year mandatory minimum on the continuing criminal enterprise charge," he said.
Capozzi said he plans to seek a new trial and will appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because he said he believes there was insufficient evidence to merit the continuing criminal enterprise verdict.