PAWHUSKA — The contentious ordeal surrounding the seizure of a massive shipment of hemp and the arrests of its transporters came to a quiet conclusion Tuesday when the entire case was dismissed a day earlier than planned.
Prosecutors dropped the marijuana-trafficking charges against Andrew Ross and David Dirksen on Tuesday, seven months after the business partners were charged. Had they been convicted, they faced 15 years to life in prison.
A court appearance set for Wednesday morning didn’t take place despite a motion filed a month ago by the buyers to release some or all of the confiscated hemp.
Pawhuska police pulled over a tractor-trailer for allegedly failing to stop at a traffic light about 3 a.m. Jan. 9. The rig’s two drivers, as well as its security detail in a separate vehicle, were arrested several hours later despite the two security officers’ attempts to convince law officers that the cargo was legal industrial hemp.
Sarah Stewart, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokeswoman, said Tuesday that there still isn’t a field test to tell hemp from marijuana.
“Right now, if our troopers encounter someone carrying large amounts of what they claim to be industrial hemp, our suspicion alone is not enough for probable cause to make an arrest,” Stewart said.
District Attorney Mike Fisher released a statement a week ago saying he believes that the security guards were “duped” into participating in the illegal shipment of 4,300 pounds of marijuana in an approximately 18,000-pound load of mostly hemp. The statement was co-signed by defense attorneys.
The episode demonstrated how unprepared Oklahoma and possibly other states were after the 2018 Farm Bill on Dec. 20 made industrial hemp legal and forbade blocking its transport between states.
A Tulsa World reporter reached out this week to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry regarding how hemp is handled in the state after news of the Pawhuska arrests went national.
The Agriculture Department recommends that hemp transporters carry a current license, a certificate of analysis and — if possible — a copy of the license or contact information for the processor.
The Patriot Shield security guards said they went above and beyond those suggestions.
Ross said he had certificates of analysis of lab results listing the THC levels, licenses and registration for both the buyer and supplier, and certification from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
“It’s obviously pretty disappointing,” Ross said. “With the amount of paperwork we had, a reasonable action by law enforcement would have been to — even if intent on confiscating the product until they got test results back — there was absolutely no reason to hold us or charge us.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late May issued a legal opinion reiterating that hemp is no longer a controlled substance and that neither states nor tribes may prohibit its interstate shipment.
The USDA noted that it expects to release regulations “implementing the new hemp production authorities” this year.
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 868 in April to give the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry authority to establish rules for the transportation of hemp.
“ODAFF will begin work to develop those rules as soon as the USDA provides guidance under the national program,” the agency said in a statement.
Ross said the USDA memo tried to clarify murky matters, “but even then there’s still confusion.” Terms aren’t clearly defined, and states are interpreting rules in their own ways, he said.
“Basically, it’s left open too much to interpretation,” Ross said.
A prominent issue is whether hemp that doesn’t satisfy the 0.3% THC or less requirement is noncompliant hemp or illegal marijuana. Or, in the case of noncompliant hemp, at what point over the limit is it considered marijuana.
“That’s really kind of the big sticking point right now,” Ross said.
Matt Lyons, one of Patriot Shield’s defense attorneys, previously said medical marijuana typically isn’t lower than 10% THC. So medicines on the low end of the THC content spectrum have roughly 20 times more THC than what Lyons considers to be noncompliant hemp.
Of 11 samples from the seized cargo tested by the federal government, the highest sample measured 0.5% THC, with a margin of error of 0.1 percent, according to the results previously obtained by the Tulsa World.
Fisher later went on a local radio program to say further testing at Redlands Community College in El Reno found several samples that tested above 1% THC. Those results haven’t been released publicly.
Fisher previously has said federal law defines industrial hemp as 0.3% THC or less and that therefore any concentration above that is marijuana.
Kenny Naylor, ODAFF director of consumer protection services, said there is no such label as “noncompliant hemp.”
The product is either hemp at 0.3% or less THC or marijuana if the cannabis is above that threshold, Naylor said. Marijuana remains a federally controlled substance.
“If we perceive an intentional action by the grower, we will turn the case over to local law enforcement,” Naylor said.
Based on the 2018 Farm Bill, Naylor agreed that lawmakers never meant for hemp violations to become criminal matters.
The 2018 Farm Bill specifically states that “a hemp producer that negligently violates a State or Tribal plan … shall not as a result of that violation be subject to any criminal enforcement action” by federal, state, tribal or local governments.
Ross, 29, and his business partner, Dirksen, 31, spent six days in jail. Each posted a $40,000 bond Jan. 15, the same day prosecutors charged them with aggravated trafficking in marijuana.
Also charged were the two truck drivers — Tadesse Deneke, 51, and Farah Warsame, 33. All four live in different states. Deneke and Warsame spent nearly a month in jail, unable to pay the bond.
Fisher dropped the charges against Deneke and Warsame in March at the urging of defense attorneys. He said his office determined it was apparent that neither was aware of the trailer’s contents they were told to haul.
Driver Impairment Awareness Day has locals smoking weed and driving