Pot-bust flashback

District attorney finally files charges in 2010 medical-marijuana raid

Rick and Donna Tognoli in front of a sign promoting Proposition 215, California’s medical-marijuana law, which was approved by voters back in 1996.

Rick and Donna Tognoli in front of a sign promoting Proposition 215, California’s medical-marijuana law, which was approved by voters back in 1996.

Photo By Vic cantu

Nearly two and one-half years ago, Rick and Donna Tognoli were proud owners of the medical-marijuana dispensary Scripts Only Service (SOS), growing and dispensing cannabis to hundreds of members with doctors’ recommendations. That all came to a crashing halt in June 2010 when SOS was raided, along with seven other Butte County dispensaries.

Though SOS was shut down due to the seizure of its property and money, no charges were filed until this September, which has the Tognolis crying foul and suggesting collusion within the county government between a county supervisor and the district attorney.

“The charges were filed about two weeks after I called Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl a liar in an open [Board of Supervisors] meeting attended by Butte County DA Mike Ramsey,” Rick Tognoli said.

That Aug. 28 meeting involved a proposal to rework an ordinance regulating the growing of marijuana that had been rejected by the voters via a referendum. Ramsey strongly refutes the Tognolis’ allegation.

“At that meeting I proclaimed the supervisors’ marijuana-growing proposal was unconstitutional, so filing charges to ‘get back’ at Mr. Tognoli, who also opposed it, doesn’t make sense,” Ramsey said.

The 2010 raids on the collectives were conducted for their practice of accepting monetary “donations” for medical pot, said Ramsey. So far only one other collective, Mountainside Patients Collective, has been charged, but that case was dropped due to the ill health of the collective’s owner. The recent charges against SOS include 14 felony offenses related to sales, cultivation and transportation of marijuana; arraignment is set for Nov. 16.

Ramsey says the laws in place simply do not allow for the sale of medical marijuana.

“I’m against medical-marijuana dispensaries. Neither Proposition 215 nor SB 420 allows for the sale of pot, even as a reimbursement,” Ramsey said, referring to California laws legalizing and regulating medical pot.

The only collectives that are legal, he said, are the “hippie-type ones” in which patients themselves grow on common property.

“Those too sick to grow for themselves must assign a personal caregiver such as a family member or licensed vocational nurse,” Ramsey said.

The 2010 raids were conducted using more than 100 officers from dozens of law-enforcement agencies. They confiscated $35,000 from SOS and the Tognolis’ bank accounts, including $25,000 belonging to Rick’s trucking business, which, he said, crippled it.

“My trucking business went from grossing over $500,000 a year with three trucks and six employees to $200,000 a year with just one truck and one employee now,” he said. The Tognolis estimate they’ve lost $750,000 in revenues plus $20,000 in legal fees. They insist the SOS funds were clearly separate from those of the trucking business.

“The DA has spent over two years trying to prove we were laundering money and he can’t,” Donna Tognoli said.

The couple anticipate a long, expensive legal battle, but hope to prevail.

“If we are tried by a jury we expect to win. But if we are tried only by a judge we would lose because it’s a good ol’ boys network, but we would appeal,” Rick Tognoli said.

Asked why it took almost two and one-half years to bring charges, Ramsey said it was due to a shortage of investigators.

“We only had one retired deputy DA working part time on the follow up,” Ramsey said. “Also, the state laws governing collectives have been in flux.”

Max Del Real, a lobbyist for Butte County medical-marijuana growers, said he thinks the delay was a symptom of poor law enforcement.

“If a case is really serious, you usually get quick action from the DA,” he said. “The Butte County busts ignored state law and made them seem like the Wild West.”

The Tognolis agree.

“The DA’s opinion doesn’t matter; state law does,” Rick Tognoli said.

The Tognolis cite a 2009 ruling by the California Third District Court of Appeals in the case of County of Butte v. Superior Court that gave Californians the right to cultivate pot collectively. It upheld a ruling by Butte County Superior Court Judge Barbara Roberts that rejected Butte County’s policy of requiring collective patients to physically participate in the growing their own cannabis and instead allowing them to contribute financially.

“When I told Ramsey about this ruling he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Judge Roberts is a poor judge,’” Rick Tognoli said.

A year ago Tognoli was awarded the right to have his $25,000 returned, but it proved a hollow victory. The judge ruled that all the money must be held in an off-limits account pending the outcome of the case.

Today the Tognolis still run SOS, albeit a tiny version of the dispensary. It operates without a storefront, delivering medical marijuana to patients, Rick Tognoli said.

“The other day I delivered cannabis to a sick, elderly woman who couldn’t lift her arms to accept her medicine,” he said. “What a corrupt county. There’s no accountability.”