U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott on Friday called two Modesto medical marijuana providers the "poster children" for problems with California's Compassionate Use law.
He praised a Fresno jury for convicting Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo on Thursday on federal drug trafficking charges, one of which carries a minimum sentence of 20 years.
"These were drug dealers selling marijuana. This case is that simple," Scott said.
The attorney took aim at Montes' and Scarmazzo's defense during their trial, in which their lawyers argued that their business was "aboveboard" and in compliance with state law.
Scott argued that Montes' and Scarmazzo's California Healthcare Collective flouted state law, too, because it turned a $9 million profit from 2004 to 2006. State law requires that medical marijuana dispensaries operate as nonprofit establishments.
"It is absolutely farcical for guys like this ... to say that they were operating in full compliance of state law," Scott said.
Robert Forkner, Montes' attorney, disputed Scott's characterization of the business. Forkner said he plans to appeal the verdict and ask for a new trial.
"California Healthcare Collective was incorporated in the state of California," Forkner said. "They were issued a business license in the city of Modesto. They paid the IRS over $1 million in taxes. Not one time did the state of California or the city of Modesto tell them they were in violation of state law."
Government and law enforcement leaders from Stanislaus County flanked Scott during a news conference at the Modesto Police Department. They thanked federal agents for conducting an undercover operation to gather evidence against the collective and trumpeted the verdict.
"We will support the efforts of law enforcement to make sure organizations like this are not about to victimize our community," said Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, who voted to ban medical marijuana clinics from doing business in the city two years ago.
County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said her office could have prosecuted the case in state court, but agreed that the federal route was preferable because it offered stiffer sentences and it opened the door for the Department of Justice to conduct the investigation.
Montes and Scarmazzo, both 27, drew the attention of local authorities when they opened their dispensary on McHenry Avenue in 2004, obtaining a business license as a health store. Police closely watched the business, documenting various run-ins with officers and complaints from neighbors.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden called the Drug Enforcement Administration for help in investigating the business, officers said Friday.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.