Jury convicts man in Miami medical marijuana growhouse case

Ricardo Varona, who says he grew marijuana only to help his cancer-stricken wife, in Miami-Dade court during trial on Friday.
Ricardo Varona, who says he grew marijuana only to help his cancer-stricken wife, in Miami-Dade court during trial on Friday. Miami Herald

A jury did not believe a Miami-Dade man who insisted he grew 15 marijuana plants inside his home only to help ease the suffering of his cancer-stricken wife.

The six-member jury on Friday night convicted Ricardo Varona of trafficking more than 25 pounds of marijuana and operating a marijuana growhouse. Taken into custody to await sentencing, Varona faces a mandatory minimum of three years in prison.

Varona, 43, was the second South Florida man in the past six months to claim “medical neccesity” in operating a marijuana growhouse. Unlike in the Varona case, a Broward jury in March acquitted 50-year-old Jesse Teplicki, who admitted he grew 46 plants to battle years of nausea and fatigue.

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

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

In Varona’s case, he was arrested after Miami-Dade detectives found a hydroponics operation inside a second-floor bedroom of his Southwest Miami-Dade home in July 2014.

The plants, according to prosecutors, weighed 103 pounds and would have yielded 30 pounds of usable marijuana. The $90,000 worth of weed was simply too much for one person’s consumption, Miami-Dade prosecutor David Emas told jurors on Friday.

“It’s all about the numbers. It’s all about the volume,” Emas said. “The man was helping out his wife — he was also helping out his wallet.”

But Varona’s defense lawyers presented a novel defense in a state where marijuana remains illegal for recreational use and is still unauthorized for medicinal reasons. Varona’s wife, Maria Varona, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and although in remission, must take prevention medication that makes her extremely nauseous.

The marijuana in the house was only intended to be infused into food for the wife, Assistant Public Defender Jose Aguirre said. He called it a “medical necessity” and said the cops’ estimates of the weight of the drugs was pure speculation.

“It was never about money. It was never about selling. It was always about his wife,” Aguirre said, at one point tearing up in talking about his client’s “honorable” decision to grow the plants.

He added: “They want you to believe he’s Pablo Escobar or Walter White, but he’s just a man trying to help out his wife with the medicine she needs.”

The three-day trial featured the testimony of the wife, a medicinal marijuana advocate neurologist and a successful marijuana cultivator in Colorado, which boasts a thriving cannabis industry.