PAWHUSKA — There were a few moments overnight Jan. 9 in which Andrew Ross was free to leave with the others in his crew. Just not with the truck trailer hauling what law enforcement suspected was 8 to 10 tons of illegal marijuana.
Ross and his business partner, David Dirksen, had been in a van behind the tractor-trailer rig.
Ross said Tuesday that the plant material — which he described as akin to “rotten hay” with mold on it — is legal industrial hemp. As CEO of Patriot Shield Security, Ross described it as his duty to protect the cargo en route to the purchaser, a Colorado company that offers hemp-based therapeutics.
So Ross, Dirksen and the two men in the truck stayed on Main Street in Pawhuska for several hours to answer questions in a failed bid to convince law enforcement officers that they were legally transporting medicine, not illicit drugs. Then they were arrested.
“If we are drug traffickers, we’re the worst drug traffickers in the world,” Ross said. “Every different law enforcement agency that came on the scene tried to get us to leave. And we refused to leave. We stuck around.
“It was product we were responsible for. So we stayed around to make sure it was handled correctly and just to answer any questions and to help everybody understand that it is industrial hemp. It’s a legal product.”
Ross and Dirksen each were charged Tuesday with aggravated trafficking of 20,500 pounds of marijuana. Both posted $40,000 bonds for release from the Osage County jail after video arraignments in district court.
Documentation provided by the defendants, however, indicates that the weight of the crop, excluding packaging, was about 17,200 pounds.
The two men in the truck, Tadesse Deneke and Farah Warsame, were charged with the same crime and remain jailed in lieu of $40,000 bond. Deneke and Warsame were subcontracted by Patriot Shield to drive the truck from a hemp farm in Kentucky to the purchaser, Panacea Life Sciences, in Colorado.
Ross and Dirksen also were charged with possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Ross said the handgun is legally owned and was in a locked case in a duffel bag in the back of the van, which is separated from the front seats by a cage.
Defense attorney Matt Lyons questioned why charges were filed before testing of the THC content of the product could be completed. The completion of testing is dependent on a federal agency during a partial shutdown of the federal government. Why not release all four men and file arrest warrants later if charges are deemed necessary, he asked.
Lyons said he was told that a laboratory had determined that some of the substance was marijuana by studying it with a microscope.
“The federal law says there’s no difference between marijuana and hemp and that the only difference is the quantity of the THC,” Lyons said. “Last I checked they can’t look at that underneath a microscope.
“The problem is if they don’t determine it to be marijuana today, they can’t press charges. If they can’t press charges, they can’t hold a truck and a minivan. ... Meanwhile, we’re providing as much mitigating evidence as I’ve ever provided in a case prior to any charges being filed, and it’s just doing no good.”
Lyons and the purchaser supplied to the Tulsa World earlier this week documentation that the plant material in question is industrial hemp that is legal to possess or transport nationwide.
The majority of the product tested at or below the federal threshold of three-tenths of 1 percent THC content for hemp, according to the documents. In contrast, cannabis that becomes medical or recreational marijuana typically has THC — the psychoactive component of marijuana — content of around 15 percent to 20 percent.
First Assistant District Attorney Michelle Bodine-Keely said Tuesday that it’s the state’s prerogative to decide whether and when to file charges within the statute of limitations. She declined to discuss specifics of the case.
“Some of the things we consider are whether we have probable cause to believe a crime was committed in the jurisdiction, whether there is a danger to the public, whether there is a flight risk,” Bodine-Keely said.
Pawhuska Police Chief Rex Wickle said he was handed documents by a manager of the subcontracted trucking company Tuesday that he would look at and give to the District Attorney’s Office. Wickle declined to comment further.
Aggravated trafficking of illegal drugs is punishable by 15 years to life in prison, with a fine between $100,000 and $500,000, according to court documents.
Police say the truck driver failed to stop at a stop light at Main Street and Leahy Avenue in Pawhuska about 3 a.m. Jan. 9.
At first, Ross told the Tulsa World from the lobby of the county jail, he thought the matter would be resolved expeditiously. But he said it became clear that officers were confused and “had no idea what they were looking at.”
More law enforcement agencies — the Osage County Sheriff’s Office, Osage Nation tribal police, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol — responded after police made the traffic stop. Eventually, around 9 or 10 a.m., representatives of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency arrived, Ross said.
He thought that if someone — anyone — would recognize legal industrial hemp, it would be the DEA.
To his dismay, Ross said, the two agents thought the product appeared to be marijuana. A field test would turn up purple if THC was in the plant material, he was told.
That was when he knew he and the others would be handcuffed and taken to jail, because legal hemp has minuscule amounts of THC.
“Clearly this is industrial hemp. I don’t know what those DEA agents are talking about when they looked at it,” Ross said. “It’s literally a giant bag of like rotten hay. It’s got mold on it. It’s sticks and stems. It’s gross. It’s not something anybody would buy.
“It is 100 percent different than what marijuana would look like. So for anybody to have actually gone through that product and then still a week later they’re saying it’s marijuana and not industrial hemp, it’s insane.”
Staff writer Harrison Grimwood contributed to this story.