Trial starts for marijuana activist

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

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained charges that were dismissed by the state prior to trial. As of this story’s publication, the list of charges on the state Judiciary website doesn’t reflect the dropped charges. The Tribune-Herald regrets the error and apologizes to Mr. Ruggles.

A 62-year-old Mountain View man authorities say ran an unlicensed medical marijuana dispensary told potential jurors Wednesday that he is being prosecuted for providing sick people with an “uninterrupted supply” of medical-grade cannabis for “compassionate use” — something he said the state failed to do when it passed a medical cannabis law in 2000.

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Mike Ruggles, who is representing himself, made the pronouncement during the second day of jury selection in his trial before Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura.

The longtime marijuana activist is charged with first-degree promotion of a detrimental drug and possession of drug paraphernalia, both Class C felonies punishable by up to five years imprisonment upon conviction.

Ruggles originally faced several more serious offenses, including first-degree commercial promotion of marijuana and first-degree promotion of a harmful drug, Class A felonies punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment upon conviction. The state, however, reduced charges prior to trial, according to Deputy Prosecutor Rick Damerville.

According to police, a search warrant executed Sept. 10, 2015, on Ruggles’ Pikake Street property in Fern Acres netted 134 marijuana plants, 49.3 pounds of dried processed marijuana, 1.2 pounds and 357 capsules of marijuana concentrate, 5.5 pounds of marijuana edibles, $1,846 in cash for forfeiture, a loaded pistol, a loaded shotgun and a 15-round magazine for a pistol.

Police say they obtained the search warrant after an undercover officer bought 48.2 grams of processed marijuana and a vaping device with a vial of marijuana concentrate from Ruggles five days earlier.

The undercover officer had a letter from a physician stating he had started the process to obtain a medical marijuana card, police said. The application was made using the officer’s undercover identity, not his real name.

“Mr. Ruggles is charged with the sale of marijuana to someone who is not legally eligible to receive marijuana,” Damerville told prospective jurors. “And if the evidence proves that beyond a reasonable doubt, could you find Mr. Ruggles guilty of that offense, even though you may not feel it’s all that important of an offense to bring before a jury? Could you do that?”

A man in the jury box replied, “No, I cannot, sir. Tobacco’s been proven to be harmful. Marijuana, the verdict’s still out on that.”

The man said he doesn’t know Ruggles but lives on the same street and added, “He’s not the danger to my well-being and safety of my community. My neighbors know that.”

Damerville asked if he thought authorities had the right to enforce laws regarding the health of the community, and the man — who said he has a medical marijuana card — replied, “I don’t think it’s violating the health of the community.”

The prosecutor then brought up recent warnings about vaping, summing up a recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser article that reported “something like five out of the eight dispensaries, their marijuana concentrate cartridges were not up to the Department of Health standards.”

At the time of his arrest, Ruggles was openly operating what he called the Alternative Pain Management Pu‘uhonua Collective, which he advertised on YouTube and maintained is a legal way for medical cannabis patients to obtain their medicine.

When it was his turn Wednesday, Ruggles used an analogy involving carrots to make the point that prior to the Legislature’s authorization of dispensaries, the state didn’t specify how medical marijuana patients could legally obtain marijuana.

“Now, I think a reasonable person, like you folks, would believe — because I always believed this and so did all our members — was that if the state says you’re allowed to do something but stands silent on it, well, you can do it any way you want. Doesn’t that sound reasonable?”

At that point, Damerville objected and a bench conference ensued.

Ruggles also disputed that his vape products were unsafe, saying his operation had a gas chromatography machine to test products.

“In 2015, before dispensaries, it was impossible for sick people to get medicine,” he said. “… I met with (County Prosecutor) Mitch Roth twice, because I was pointing out, hey, I got 150 people here dying. Over 20 of our members were hospice members. These people, it was a pleasure to serve them, and it was a pleasure to help them pass on.

“Right now, we got an opioid epidemic in America,” he continued. “… In 2016, you got 115 people a day dying from opioids. There’s never been a documented case of anybody dying of … cannabis. In 2012, I lost my wife to opioids. And my daughters had to watch her die. And I can tell you this, as someone who’s done hospice for a few years, a death on opioids is not a decent death. It’s not a death with dignity. You’re on opioids, you’re sick, your stomach’s upset, you can’t eat, you’re constipated — and you’re not happy. You can’t spend time with your friends and loved ones in a quality condition. Whereas, if you use cannabis, you can do all those things. You can feel better. You can eat. … Nobody has ever overdosed on marijuana.”

Jury summons were sent to 250 people, 10 more than for last year’s trial of Sean Rutledge, who was convicted of murdering his mother, Nadean Rutledge.

There also is a list of 160 potential witnesses, mostly for the defense. The list includes Jennifer Ruggles, the defendant’s daughter and a former County Council member; Roth; and numerous political figures and law enforcement officers.

“You saw the witness list.” Damerville told jurors. “Did any of you have a reaction of, ‘Oh my God, this witness list. We’re gonna be here forever.’ Did anybody have that reaction?”

An audible murmur rose from the courtroom.

“OK, the state intends to call seven witnesses in this case,” the prosecutor said. “And the state intends to move this case along as quickly as we can. … I am the oldest prosecutor in the state of Hawaii. And based on my experience, this case is not gonna take three weeks. It’s not gonna take two weeks.”

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The state is expected to call witnesses and present evidence when the trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

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

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