By Ronnie Cohen
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two California men accused of holding a teenage girl captive as a sex slave on their marijuana farm and locking her inside an oversized metal toolbox have also been charged with forcing her to help prepare their cannabis crop for illegal distribution.
Federal prosecutors have seized on the case to support their crackdown against a burgeoning network of pot cultivation and dispensaries they say are fronts for large-scale drug traffickers operating under the guise of California's medical marijuana law.
But advocates of more liberalized cannabis laws argued that the case illustrates how law enforcement efforts have failed, while broad legalization and regulation of pot would remove the marijuana trade from its criminal element.
Ryan Balletto, 30, and Patrick Pearmain, 25, were charged in a criminal complaint unsealed late on Monday with conspiring to distribute more than 1,000 illegally grown marijuana plants and with using a minor in connection with their alleged drug ring.
Balletto also was charged with possessing a firearm for drug trafficking.
The two men were arrested in May on state drug charges, as well as false imprisonment, rape and other sex offenses stemming from the captivity of a 15-year-old girl who police said was held against her will on their remote compound in Northern California.
Balletto and Pearmain were slated to appear on Wednesday for a detention hearing in federal court in Eureka, though the pot farm in question was located to the south in rural Lake County.
State charges against the men were dismissed on Friday to allow federal authorities to more quickly pursue their case against the pair, who could face life in prison if convicted.
According to the federal criminal complaint, authorities searching Balletto's 680-acre property in May found three greenhouses with 1,320 marijuana plants and a cache of ammunition and weapons.
Investigators also seized equipment used for sexual bondage and sadomasochism, a rope tied with a noose and a 4-foot-long metal toolbox "altered to imprison a human," the complaint says.
It says the girl told investigators she was twice locked in the box for a total of three days, and Balletto told her she was a "trouper" for not screaming during her confinement.
She told authorities the two men also put her to work cutting cannabis buds and preparing them to be dried.
The girl, who had been reported missing from Los Angeles, has not been publicly identified because she is a minor. She was taken into protective custody when Balletto and Pearmain were arrested.
"Some in our community believe that marijuana grow operations are run by compassionate caregivers interested only in supplying medicine to the sick," U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said in a written statement about the case. "Unfortunately, this case illustrates what we in law enforcement see - marijuana grow operations that include heavily armed, violent individuals motivated by profit, carrying out abuses of vulnerable victims."
Amanda Reiman, a California policy manager for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, countered that the public would be better served by lifting the federal prohibition on marijuana and allowing state and local authorities to control cannabis.
"Regulation can help deter folks from getting involved in the illicit market," she said. "What Melinda Haag's really doing is making a call for the taxation and regulation of marijuana."
California was the first of 19 states and the District of Columbia to pass laws approving of marijuana for medical purposes, though the federal government continues to classify pot as an illegal narcotic.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Stacey Joyce)