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Trial postponed until next year for marijuana activist

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Mike Ruggles appears Monday in Hilo Circuit Court.

Jury selection was to begin Monday in the trial of longtime marijuana activist Mike Ruggles, accused by authorities of operating an unlicensed medical cannabis dispensary at his Fern Acres home.

Instead, the jury pool of 60 individuals was dismissed by Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura, and Ruggles’ trial was re-scheduled for March 4, 2019, almost nine months from now.

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The 61-year-old Ruggles is charged with first- and second-degree commercial promotion of marijuana, first-degree promotion of a detrimental drug, two counts of possessing drug paraphernalia, and prohibited possession of an ammunition magazine with a capacity in excess of 10 rounds.

That’s far fewer than the 31 criminal charges Ruggles, the father of County Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, originally faced after police served a search warrant on Ruggles’ Pikake Street home on Sept. 10, 2015.

Officers reportedly confiscated 134 marijuana plants, 49.3 pounds of dried processed marijuana, 1.2 pounds and 357 capsules of suspected marijuana concentrate, 5.5 pounds of marijuana edibles, a loaded shotgun, a loaded pistol, a 15-round magazine for a pistol and $1,486 in cash.

The search warrant came five days after an undercover officer bought about 1 1/2 ounces of marijuana and a vaping device with a vial of marijuana concentrate from Ruggles, police said.

Ruggles pleaded not guilty to all charges and maintains his Alternative Pain Management Pu‘uhonua Collective was not a dispensary, but a legal way for medical marijuana patients to obtain their medicine.

About two dozen of Ruggles’ supporters, including Jen Ruggles, were on hand Monday.

Shortly before jury selection was to start, Ruggles, who had been representing himself, was asked by Nakamura if he wanted to be represented by a lawyer at trial.

“Your Honor, if I could afford a lawyer, I certainly would,” said Ruggles.

When Nakamura pointed out a court-appointed attorney was available at no cost to him, Ruggles replied, “I feel like none of the lawyers available in the pool that I qualify for would be able to represent me against such an esteemed prosecutor as Rick Damerville. So because of that, I’ve decided to do it myself.”

Pressed further, Ruggles told the judge he would accept Stanton Oshiro as a court-appointed attorney if the court would make the appointment. Later in the day, Nakamura appointed Oshiro, one of Hilo’s busiest criminal defense lawyers, and re-scheduled the trial to allow Oshiro to prepare Ruggles’ case.

“I think we’re going to prevail with Stanton. I don’t think they’ve got a chance,” Ruggles said afterward. “Personally, I think I could’ve done it. But I’m no lawyer. … Now, I’ve got a lawyer.”

Damerville said, in court and afterward, other jurisdictions are moving away from the model of an attorney appointed by the court on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and are moving toward a system where defendants can talk to more than one lawyer in a pool of qualified attorneys and choose one they think is the best fit.

“Why, just because you’re indigent, should you get no say at all in who you get as a lawyer?” Damerville asked, rhetorically. “I think we can create something that gives some modicum of choice. You may not have an authoritarian choice. But you can have a lawyer whose schedule and whose personality fits.

“… It’s not a frivolous issue. People have thought about it and looked at it over the years, and maybe it’s time to look at some models to give people some kind of choice about who’s going to represent them.”

The most serious charge Ruggles is facing, first-degree commercial promotion of marijuana, is a Class A felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

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Ruggles is free on $36,000 bail.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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