FRESNO — There's no disagreement between federal prosecutors and defense attorneys that Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Ruiz Montes grew marijuana, sold it to people — and made lots of money in a very short time doing it.
The question is: Did the two men break the law while operating their Modesto medical marijuana dispensary, known as the California Healthcare Collective?
Federal prosecutors say yes, and outlined their case during opening arguments Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno. In short, said prosecutor Elana Landau: "Under federal law, there can be no legitimate marijuana business."
Montes' attorney, Robert Forkner, didn't dispute the series of events laid out by Landau, which featured Scarmazzo, Montes or their employees being pulled over and found with large amounts of cash and marijuana, growing marijuana at homes in Modesto and Hughson, as well as at a Ripon apartment, and selling it to customers at their dispensary.
"The facts are the facts," Forkner told jurors in his opening argument. "Law enforcement agents found marijuana and money."
Forkner, however, said no laws were broken. The business was incorporated with the state of California, paid state and federal taxes, obtained a business license and followed state law in not selling more marijuana than allowed by law and requiring a doctor's recommendation to buy the pot.
Not specifically mentioned was Proposition 215, the 1996 state initiative that legalized the medical use of marijuana in California. But it is key to a defense that neither man had any intent to break the law.
Even on day one of a trial that could last a month or more, there was clear tension in U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger's courtroom. Landau and fellow prosecutor Kathleen Servatius objected several times during Forkner's opening statement.
After Wanger dismissed jurors for an early lunch, he ordered the prosecutors and defense attorneys to read the rules of decorum for his courtroom.
Between opening arguments from Forkner and Landau, a picture of the events leading to the raid on the dispensary emerged. Scarmazzo's attorney, Anthony Capozzi, will give his opening argument when the defense begins its side of the case.
In 2003, Montes, a Modesto native, was injured in a car crash.
Not liking the side effects of Vicodin and other prescription pain medication, he turned to medical marijuana.
Frustrated by having to drive to Bay Area cities such as Hayward for his marijuana, Montes took his settlement money from the crash and opened Modesto's first medical pot dispensary.
It was a life-changing event.
Montes and Scarmazzo saw the business grow from earning thousands of dollars to tens of thousands each month. Scarmazzo, 27, who was treasurer of the business, has said he was earning $13,000 a month.
It wasn't long before the dispensary caught the eye of local law enforcement, who began an active investigation. Forkner hinted that it amounted to harassment, as authorities pulled over California Healthcare Collective employees for minor traffic infractions and gained access to the business by "manufacturing a fraudulent cannabis card and ID."
Federal authorities claim that Montes and Scarmazzo did more than simply manufacture and distribute marijuana. They also face a charge of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which carries a mandatory 20-year minimum prison sentence, with the possibility of a life term.