Miami-Dade County

Accused Miami marijuana trafficker claims he grew plants to help cancer-stricken wife

Ricardo Varona, who claims he started a marijuana growhouse to help his wife stricken with cancer, in Miami-Dade court on Tuesday for his trial.
Ricardo Varona, who claims he started a marijuana growhouse to help his wife stricken with cancer, in Miami-Dade court on Tuesday for his trial. Miami Herald staff

Ricardo Varona makes no apologies for running a sophisticated, high-powered hydroponics lab inside a second-floor bedroom of his Southwest Miami-Dade home. He went to trial on Tuesday to insist he was innocent of breaking the law — arguing he was growing the marijuana solely to help his wife stricken with breast cancer.

“Love and compassion, that’s what this case is really about,” assistant public defender Adam Bair told jurors. “In particular, this case is about a man willing to do anything to ease his wife’s suffering.”

The unusual defense, in a state where medical marijuana is not yet allowed, was unconvincing to prosecutors. They tried walking a tight rope Tuesday, offering sympathy for Varona’s wife but casting her husband as a big-time dope dealer.

Their key evidence: His last batch netted 15 live marijuana plants weighing 103 pounds, simply too much for medical use, Miami-Dade prosecutor David Emas told jurors.

“One hundred pounds too many … We’ll give her half a pound. We’ll give her two. We’ll give her three pounds of marijuana,” Emas told jurors. “What about the 100 other pounds?”

The trial comes at a time when marijuana laws across the country have been eased, with the herb now legal for medical use in over 20 states and recreational purposes in four states, plus Washington D.C.

In Florida, the Legislature has authorized a low-grade strain of marijuana to treat a small number of ailments, including cancer. In October, the state will decide which growers will be allowed to cultivate the plants; patients will likely be able to get access to marijuana sometime early next year.

Legally, Varona, 43, would not be covered under the state’s medical marijuana law. He is accused of trafficking over 25 pounds of marijuana and operating a marijuana growhouse in July 2014.

Originally from Cuba, Varona came to the Miami 12 years ago. His wife, Maria Varona, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. His defense laid out her story. Varona underwent surgery to remove lumps from her breast, then underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Then, to prevent the return of the cancer, she began taking a drug called Tamoxifen aimed at preventing the return of the cancer.

Because of the drug, Maria Varona suffered extreme nausea, Bair told jurors. She discovered that marijuana-infused edible foods eased her suffering during a trip to her native Venezuela. But Maria Varona — who is expected to testify Thursday — was forced to give up marijuana when she returned to Miami.

“All of the symptoms returned. All of the vomiting. All of the diarrhea. The insomnia. The fatigue,” said Bair, who is trying the case with Jose Aguirre.

So, Bair said, Varona started up the hydroponics lab inside his home, spending $5,000 on high-powered bulbs, transformers, filters, fans and water pumps. The seeds he bought from an “unknown person” in the parking lot of the store that sold him the equipment, Miami-Dade Detective Walter Enamorado testified Tuesday.

For prosecutors, the testimony of two narcotics detectives was key.

Enomarado testified that the 15 plants would yield about 30 pounds of usable marijuana, far too much for even the most committed smoker to consume in a given year. “It’s impossible, but that’s just my opinion,” Enamorado told prosecutor Kimberly Archila.

The defense, however, pointed out that cops found no money or material that could be used to package the marijuana for sale.

Dr. Denis Petro, a neurologist and nationally recognized advocate of medical marijuana, is expected to testify for the defense. The trial continues Thursday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milian.