Getting Trucked Around: Seized Hemp Case Raises Concerns About Legality and Jeopardy

By William Sumner, Hemp Business Journal Contributor

While the 2018 Farm Bill effectively legalized hemp production in the United States, hemp companies have not yet been unburdened of fears about legal jeopardy. Late last month, four men were arrested in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, on suspicion of drug trafficking after law enforcement officials discovered that they were transporting nearly nine tons of hemp.

According to Pawhuska Police Chief Rex Wikel, about 3 a.m. on January 9, a routine traffic stop of a semi-truck for failure to observe a red light led local officers of the Pawhuska Police Department to think that they had made a record drug bust.

Upon approaching the vehicle, the officers noticed the smell of what they believed to be cannabis. A brief search of the truck revealed approximately 17,258 pounds of hemp worth a reported $850,000.

Though the men declared the shipment as hemp, a field test conducted by the officers revealed the presence of THC in the product, and subsequent arrest of the suspects. Charged with aggravated trafficking of marijuana, if convicted the men face up to 15 years in prison.

The shipment was intended for Panacea Life Sciences, a health and wellness company specializing in hemp-based therapeutics. In a statement the company’s president, , Jamie Baumgartner,  expressed his optimism for a positive outcome, and belief that the defendants and his company will ultimately be vindicated.

“We’re trying to work to clarify the situation that this was industrial hemp, and it is our hope that the charges against the individuals transporting the material will be dropped,” Baumgartner said. “We also hope that this is going to be a test case so that there is better clarification in the future for the transportation of what is an important agricultural product.”

This case highlights the harsh, uneven realities facing  hemp operators dealing under uncertainty. While federal authorities have come to recognize hemp as an agricultural product, state and local officials are left with uncertain guidance.

In Idaho, another truck driver was arrested for transporting hemp and charged with cannabis trafficking. Though the 2018 Farm Bill bans states from interfering with the transportation of hemp, state prosecutors have insisted that it is illegal under Idaho state law, and thus plan on pursuing charges.

“This is such a gray area,” commiserated Wikel “this is all brand new.”

Adding to confusion is that cannabis field-test kits provided to local police departments are designed to detect the presence of THC and not potency, missing a critical distinction.

Under federal law, hemp is defined as a cannabis plant containing 0.3% THC or less. By that standard, any plant which met the federal definition of hemp could still test positive as cannabis according to a standard field test kit.

Because of the ambiguity with the field tests, both the defendants and Panacea Life Sciences have requested that the state conduct a more thorough analysis of the shipment. Initial federal testing revealed that some of the samples met the legal definition of hemp, while others did not.

How many of the samples met the federal definition of hemp remains uncertain.  According to Wikel, three out of 11 samples were at or below the legal limit. However, Matt Lyons, a defense attorney for two of the individuals charged in the case, told Tulsa World that only two of the samples were “hot”, or over the THC limit.

The Hemp Business Journal reached out the Drug Enforcement Administration for clarification about the test results but did not receive a reply for this article. Another test of the shipment is expected, though the time and standards for the test remain undetermined.

At present, the fate of the defendants and the shipment rest largely on the final testing results, suggesting three possible outcomes: If the shipment is at or below the legal THC limit, the defendants and the shipment will be released. Should the hemp be found above the legal threshold but still containing less than 1% THC, the shipment will be destroyed and charges dropped. Most seriously,  if the shipment is found as over 1% THC, it will be destroyed, and prosecutors will move forward with the charges.

William Sumner

William Sumner is a writer for the hemp and cannabis industry. Hailing from Panama City, Florida, William covers various topics such as hemp legislation, investment, and business. William’s writing has appeared in publications such as Green Market Report, Civilized, and MJINews. You can follow William on Twitter: @W_Sumner.