Miami-Dade County

Colorado marijuana industry cited in Miami growhouse trial

Maria Varona, wife of Ricardo Varona, who is accused of running a marijuana grow house, testified at his trial Thursday. His defense: He was growing the plants to help her fight the side-effects of cancer treatment.
Maria Varona, wife of Ricardo Varona, who is accused of running a marijuana grow house, testified at his trial Thursday. His defense: He was growing the plants to help her fight the side-effects of cancer treatment.

With its established medical and recreational pot industry, Colorado loomed large Thursday over the trial of a Miami man who insists he operated a marijuana growhouse only to help ease the suffering of his cancer-stricken wife.

A successful Colorado purveyor of legal pot explained to jurors the nuances of marijuana strains, cultivation and state regulations. A neurologist testified the western state’s entrepreneurs are “literally spending hundreds of millions in a rush to patent their formulas of therapeutic form of cannabis.”

And Maria Varona told jurors she must now travel to Colorado to buy edible marijuana goods and cancer prevention pills since her husband was busted for cannabis trafficking in Southwest Miami-Dade last year.

“It’s legal over there, no type of problem over there,” Maria Varona testified, adding later: “They do help women with cancer over there. They give me assistance.”

The witnesses took center stage Thursday as Ricardo Varona’s defense sought to draw the differences between Colorado and Florida, where recreational weed remains illegal and medical marijuana for certain ailments won’t be available until next year.

Miami-Dade police arrested Varona in July 2014, saying they seized 15 live marijuana plants weighing 103 pounds, which could have yielded at least 30 pounds of usable pot.

Prosecutors told jurors the lab was sophisticated, complete with high-powered lights to mimic the sun, carbon filters to mask odor and fans to cool the operations. So much weed, they concluded, was simply too much to be intended for the consumption of one woman.

He also admitted to police that he had previous growhouses, although jurors were not allowed to hear that because the crimes were uncharged. The alleged crime happened before Florida’s medical marijuana law was passed, which will allow only a handful of companies to be licensed to provide the herb to patients.

The trial comes at a time that marijuana laws across the county have been eased, with the herb now legal for medical use in over 20 states, and for recreational purposes in four states, including Colorado.

Varona’s defense is a unique approach, at least in South Florida, a hotbed for growhouse operators who often claim they are mere caretakers. Testifying first was Bruce Vanaman, a Colorado cancer patient who has become a successful marijuana businessman, operating numerous farms across the country.

He said that by comparison to his Colorado operation — which most recently yielded 1 ½ million pounds of pot — Varona’s operation was “low-tech,” “amateur” and by no means a hydroponics “lab.”

“It’s a garden,” he told defense attorney Adam Bair.

Vanaman also said Miami-Dade detectives grossly miscalculated the amount of weight of the low-grade, immature plants found inside the home. “It’s not a commercial grow by any means. It’s definitely for personal use,” he said after looking at police photos.

Maria Varona testified that she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. She began eating marijuana-infused products in Venezuela as she underwent treatment, and later began taking a drug called Tamoxifen that causes vomiting, naseous and insomnia.

Maria Varona said although the cancer has gone away, she must still take the drug — which she gets from Colorado now along with her marijuana edibles — because of the prevalence of the disease in her family.

She insisted she was not lying to protect her husband, although she was fuzzy about how and when her husband prepared her marijuana-infused meals. She also claimed she did not know her husband was operating the growhouse.

“I did suspect. I smelled the odor, but I didn’t know anything. He had the room closed,” Maria Varona told prosecutor Kimberly Archila. “I was never allowed to go in there.”

The defense also called to the stand Dr. Denis Petro, a prominent medical marijuana advocate and neurologist who testified cannabis is considered safe and extremely helpful for treating effects of Tamoxifen.

The trial will conclude Friday before Circuit Judge Alberto Milian.

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