The owner of a head shop and hookah lounge pleaded not guilty to federal drug and other charges during a Tuesday court appearance in Bangor.
Christopher Ruhlin, 48, of Holden, owner of Herbal Tea & Tobacco, located in Bangor at 44 Main St., is accused of growing and selling marijuana and covering up how much money he made.
His lawyer, Jeffrey Silverstein, of Bangor, said his client is caught in the middle of a conflict between Maine’s liberal marijuana laws and the more stringent federal government.
“It’s clear that this is shaking out to be a feds versus small guy, federal versus state conflict,” Ruhlin’s attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor, said at an impromptu press conference outside the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building after the arraignment.
Maine’s recreational pot law allows people to possess 2.5 ounces of processed marijuana or six flowering marijuana plants, 12 immature plants and unlimited seedlings, and possess all the marijuana produced by the plants. Rules about the retail sale of marijuana still are being written.
Ruhlin was released on $5,000 unsecured bail and ordered not to use his legally prescribed medical marijuana as part of his bail conditions. He also must submit to drug and alcohol tests and not leave the the state without permission. He also is barred from contact with Sawtelle, 48, of Bangor, and any witnesses.
Sawtelle, who worked for Ruhlin, according to court documents, also was charged with drug conspiracy. He pleaded not guilty last week and is free on $5,000 unsecured bond.
Silverstein said outside the courthouse that denying Ruhlin medical marijuana showed that federal prosecutors “have a bias” against the drug, which Ruhlin has used for many years due to injuries sustained in a car accident.
Prosecutors allege that between October 2010 and November 2013 the two men used a property on North Searsport Road in Frankfort to manufacture and distribute marijuana. It also accuses Ruhlin of using his shop and smoking lounge to distribute marijuana between May 2014 and Aug. 25, 2016, when agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided the building on Main Street.
During the May 12, 2016 raid on the Frankfort property, agents seized about 400 marijuana plants, 295 marijuana root bulbs, processed marijuana, receipts from a garden center totalling about $25,000 and other items, according to court documents. Three months later, 23 containers of processed marijuana were seized from the 13 Owls Club smoking lounge, adjacent to Herbal Tea & Tobacco, the documents said.
Ruhlin is charged with one of count of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, two counts of maintaining a drug-involved place and seven counts of structuring bank transactions to avoid reporting deposits of $10,000 or more to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
He is not licensed with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services as a medical marijuana caregiver, according to court documents.
If convicted, Ruhlin and Sawtelle face up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $1 million on the drug conspiracy charge, the most serious charge.
In addition to prison time and possible fines, federal prosecutors also are seeking to seize properties where marijuana allegedly was grown and sold from Ruhlin along with the cash he allegedly made selling pot, if he is convicted of the drug conspiracy charge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Clark, who acts as spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office in Maine, declined to comment on Silverstein’s statements. It is the practice of the U.S. attorney’s office not to comment on cases until they have been resolved.