The state treasurer, House majority floor leader and House Judiciary Committee chairman testified in support of the farmers.
By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
CHEYENNE—A Laramie County judge threw out drug trafficking charges against hemp advocates and farmers Debra Palm-Egle and Joshua Egle Thursday, finding prosecutors lacked probable cause that the mother-and-son duo intended to grow and distribute marijuana.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Williams also dismissed charges against a contractor and his wife, Brock and Shannon Dyke, who worked for the farmers and were on the property when the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation raided it in November 2019.
Prosecutors sought to charge all four with conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or possess marijuana; possession with intent to deliver marijuana; possession of marijuana and planting or cultivating marijuana. All but the last are felonies. The judge dismissed all charges, including a misdemeanor marijuana charge, a court clerk said Friday.
Lawyers for the defendant argued, and the judge ultimately ruled, that the farmers had intended to produce hemp, not marijuana. The day of the raid, Brock Dykes showed DCI agents the results of tests conducted on the crop that indicated it contained less than 0.3% THC.
Under Wyoming’s hemp statutes, the crop has to have a THC-concentration limit below 0.3%. Marijuana and hemp are derived from the same plant. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical in marijuana that gets users high. Its low presence in hemp keeps the crop from being categorized a drug.
Acting on a tip, DCI ultimately seized 700 pounds of hemp from the Egles’ farm. When agents ran it through a series of their own tests, most test results came back with THC concentrations higher than 0.3%. The highest result was 0.6%.
Laramie County Assistant District Attorney David Singleton, who prosecuted the case, argued that any plant testing over 0.3% is marijuana, not hemp. The judge, however, said it was clear the farmers intended to grow hemp, citing as evidence Dyke’s presentation of earlier test results to DCI and the Egles’ long history as hemp farmers.
Reached by phone Friday, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove declined to comment on the case.
The dismissal of the case at such an early stage in criminal procedures — during a preliminary hearing — is unusual. Tom Jubin, a lawyer for the Egles, said that during his decades-long career this was only the third of his cases to end at that early stage.
“It’s pretty rare but it’s also pretty rare that a prosecutor would take a case like this and push it,” Jubin told WyoFile after the judge’s verdict.
“Please, have the courage to get these people home,” Jubin asked the judge during his closing remarks. In June, a different judge restricted Deborah Palm-Egle to Laramie County, though her home is in Colorado, her son told WyoFile.
Judge Williams’ own comments before her verdict were brief.
She understood why prosecutors had chosen to bring the case, she said, but did not believe they had probable cause. She also reprimanded the Egles, who had begun growing their hemp crop without a license while state and federal authorities were still developing rules for the newly legalized crop.
The Egles were prominent activists in front of the Legislature who helped push Wyoming’s hemp bill through. House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), who took the witness stand Thursday, testified that he knew the Egles and understood them to be hemp farmers with no intention of growing marijuana. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) and Wyoming State Treasurer Curt Meier submitted statements with similar testimony in support of the Egles.
As such, the Egles “knew the law as well as anyone,” Williams said, and should have been licensed.
Under Wyoming statute, the Egles could face a $750 fine for growing hemp without a license. Such a penalty is a far cry from the decades of prison time they could have gotten if convicted on prosecutors’ charges.
After the judge’s ruling, Shannon Dykes rushed to tearfully embrace Palm-Egle, who is in a wheelchair. “Thank God it’s over,” Palm-Egle said.
Joshua Egle began growing what he described as a test crop of hemp for research purposes before he got his license, he told WyoFile after the hearing. Working in unfamiliar soil, it would take time for farmers to understand how to harvest the plants at the right time to keep THC concentrations legal, he said.
At the time, he was betting officials would soon work out the new industry regulation kinks and allow him to license the crop, he said. In the meantime, “we had to get going,” he said.
The Egles, and other hemp proponents, have pitched the crop as a new outlet for Wyoming’s farmers, and a viable path for economic diversification for a state struggling with its dependence on the energy industry. Egle will continue to pursue hemp farming in Wyoming, he said.
On Nov. 4, the Dykes were at the Egles’ property in Albin, a farming village in eastern Laramie County near the Nebraska line. The Egles, who live principally in Colorado, were not home. Brock Dykes was taking advantage of fresh snow to burn some waste wood, he told WyoFile in an interview after the judge’s verdict Thursday.
Dykes and his wife were standing outside and saw a line of unmarked cars, and one Wyoming Highway Patrol car, coming toward the property, he said. Their first thought was someone had called in concern about the smoke, he said. His two sons, then 11 and 12 years old, were inside the farmhouse.
Law enforcement officers, who ultimately turned out to be DCI agents, came out of the cars in tactical gear and with rifles pointed at the couple, the Dykes said, yelling at them to “put their fucking hands up.” Brock Dykes saw “five or six officers with a battering ram” approaching the door of the house where his sons were, he said. He yelled that it was unlocked and they didn’t use the ram.
Officers trained guns on the two boys as well, the Dykes said. It was 45 minutes to an hour before Shannon Dykes was able to see her sons, she said.
The investigation had begun when a “reliable source of information” called DCI concerned that the Egles were growing marijuana, according to the charging documents. DCI agents visited the farm several times and spotted what they believed to be marijuana plants drying in an open barn.
DCI agents never contacted the Egles, either before the raid or during the five months between the raid and pressing felony charges, according to the DCI investigator’s testimony during the trial.
“You sought charges against these farmers for crimes that carry decades of prison time without ever talking to them?” Jubin asked DCI Special Agent John Briggs, who led the investigation, during the hearings.
“I did not interview them, no sir,” the investigator answered.
The Dykes were never handcuffed during the raid, they said. Testimony during the preliminary hearing, which took place over two afternoons in July and August, established that Brock Dykes tried to explain the Egles were growing hemp. He showed officers the THC testing results Joshua Egle had sent him, which were on his cellphone.
Briggs was not interested in those results at the time of the raid, Dykes told WyoFile. Briggs told Dykes “I’m not going to argue with you about the technical difference between hemp and marijuana,” Dykes said.
The Dykes’ attorney, Michael Bennett, asked the judge to consider what kind of criminal would “show [testing] proof to agents, as if it were some elaborate ruse to grow the worst marijuana in the entire universe.”
DCI agents confiscated 722 pounds of plants, according to the affidavit. During the court hearings, Briggs testified that then-agency director Steve Woodson, and then assistant-director Forrest Williams drove a vehicle to the farm to collect the crop. Woodson retired in early 2020, and Williams is today the agency’s interim director.
Though relieved at the judge’s action Thursday, the Dykes remain angry at the DCI agents and prosecutors who brought such heavy charges against them. The young couple and small business owners have had to pay for weekly drug tests since early June, and spent considerable money on a lawyer, they said.
“This is all very, very surreal,” Dykes said.
The hemp industry has now progressed in Wyoming, and a number of people around him are growing the crop, he said. “How many more people are growing right now whose neighbor is going to call the police?” he said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Montana Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Implementation Bill
The legislation makes some changes to the voter-approved cannabis measure but is closer to the ballot initiative than some plans lawmakers floated this session.
By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Daily Montanan
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) on Tuesday signed House Bill 701, landmark legislation that implements and regulates the recreational marijuana program that voters approved in a ballot initiative last year and funds a substance abuse prevention program that the new governor has championed since his first days in office.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, followed a long and bumpy path to the governor’s desk, emerging among a slew of other proposals in the back half of the session. Even on the 67th Legislature’s final day, the Senate considered an ultimately failed proposal to alter HB701’s carefully negotiated taxation and revenue allocation structure and significantly tighten medical card requirements.
Under HB701, retail sails of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older will begin in January of next year. The half of Montana counties that voted for I-190, the ballot initiative legalizing adult-use cannabis, will have recreational in their borders by default, while voters in the the other half of counties will have to take an affirmative action to bring recreational marijuana in their boundaries if so desired. Recreational pot will be taxed at 20 percent, while medical marijuana will retain a 5 percent tax. The bill also moves operation and regulation of the state’s marijuana program from the Department of Public Health and Human Services to the Department of Revenue.
And it creates a special drug court to handle the review and possible resentencing or expungement of past marijuana-related convictions, a key goal of criminal justice advocates for the marijuana program.
The new marijuana law also uses tax revenues from the sale of the product—which could reach tens of millions of dollars a year, depending on the estimate—to help finance the HEART Fund, a drug treatment program that would dole out state money to local organizations and non-profits to fill gaps in the continuum of substance abuse care and prevention services, Gianforte’s office said.
With marijuana revenues, federal Medicaid match dollars and an infusion of tobacco settlement funds, the governor’s office estimated that the HEART Fund—short for Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment—could invest $25 million a year in substance abuse treatment.
“From the start, I’ve been clear that we need to bring more resources to bear to combat the drug epidemic that’s devastating our communities,” Gianforte said in his statement. “Funding a full continuum of substance abuse prevention and treatment programs for communities, the HEART Fund will offer new supports to Montanans who want to get clean, sober, and healthy.”
How much to tax pot and what to do with the money formed the core of debate over HB701. I-190 laid out a plan for revenues from a 20 percent tax to fund veterans services, park and trail maintenance and the acquisition of conservation easements through Habitat Montana. But the initiative, which passed with a healthy 57 percent of the vote, was quickly challenged in court, as only the Legislature has the constitutional authority to appropriate state funds. The suit is still ongoing.
So lawmakers this session set about drafting plans to spend or save the money themselves. Some conservatives favored a plan to lower the tax on recreational pot, fearing that a 20 percent levy would drive consumers to the black market, and put revenues in an interest-bearing trust fund that could be used to defray negative effects of legalization further down the line. Democrats wanted to hew as close to I-190 as possible, arguing that anything else disregarded the will of the voters and the pro-public lands ethos that underlies much of Montana politics.
Initially, HB701 made minor investments in parks, trails and non-game wildlife, paid into the HEART Fund at a rate of $6 million a year and left the rest to the general fund. But regular agitation from conservation groups and a deal struck in the Senate restored part of I-190’s funding structure, albeit on a delayed schedule, and revived many of its other provisions, earning support from initiative backers and authors who had been hesitant to embrace any legislative changes to I-190 earlier in the session.
“Since January, we’ve been focused on implementing the will of Montana voters in a safe, responsible, and appropriately regulated manner. House Bill 701 accomplishes this,” Gianforte said in a press statement sent out after he signed the bill May 18.
Louisiana Marijuana Legalization Effort Stalls After House Rejects Complementary Tax Proposal
An effort to legalize marijuana in Louisiana appeared to reach a dead end on Tuesday, with the House of Representatives rejecting a complementary measure to impose taxes on cannabis sales ahead of a scheduled vote on the broader proposal.
Advocates have been closely monitoring the legislature this session as numerous cannabis reform proposals move through the traditionally conservative state—including bills to decriminalize marijuana possession and legalize the smoking of cannabis flower by medical patients.
The recreational legalization bill from Rep. Richard Nelson (R) represented the most comprehensive piece of marijuana legislation to advance. But with the House voting against the related tax bill, it appears likely that the main measure would face a similar fate if the sponsor insisted on a floor vote. The legalization measure, along with another companion bill setting licensing fees for cannabis businesses, were scheduled for floor consideration on Tuesday but Nelson moved to have them set aside.
The overall plan would have allowed adults 21 and older to purchase and possess marijuana from licensed retailers. Possession of up to two and a half pounds of cannabis would have been lawful.
Under one version of the bill, regulators would have been tasked with creating a permit for adults to grow up to six plants for personal use, but Nelson was prepared to remove that provision with an amendment he filed in an effort to build support from colleagues. The sponsor also floated a change that would have delayed legalization’s taking effect until cannabis is federally rescheduled.
The complementary bill that would have levied a 15 percent sales tax on cannabis products, in addition to state and local taxes. It would also have divided tax revenue between the state general fund and the local local jurisdictions where sales take place. It lost in a vote of 47-48, while 70 votes were needed to meet the two-thirds threshold for passage of tax legislation.
The separate fee measure from Nelson would have established a $2,500 annual fee for cannabis business licenses and a $100 annual fee for a personal cultivation permit.
Legalization’s stalling comes on the heels of a new poll showing that constituents in some of the most firmly Republican districts in the state support the policy change.
This also comes after the governor of another traditionally conservative state, Alabama, signed a bill to legalize medical cannabis.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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The developments on the Louisiana legalization legislation and the connected bills comes as several other cannabis reform measures are advancing. Here’s a breakdown of where those pieces of legislation stand:
HB 652: Decriminalize possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana, making it punishable by a $100 fine without the threat of jail time. Status: The legislation cleared the House last week and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
HB 514: Impose taxes on flower medical marijuana products if they are legalized. Status: The measure was approved in the House last month and also advanced through the committee process in the Senate, where it now awaits a floor vote.
HB 243: Remove criminal penalties for marijuana if it is legalized. Status: This proposal cleared the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last month and is awaiting scheduling for a House floor vote.
HB 709: Establish certain regulations for a marijuana market if legalized, including provisions meant to promote social equity in the industry. Status: The bill was approved on second reading in the House on Monday as a substitute for a prior measure that advanced out of committee.
HB 640: Align Louisiana’s hemp regulations with federal rules that were finalized and took effect in March. Status: The House approved the measure last week and the Senate Agriculture, Forestry, Aquaculture, and Rural Development Committee lightly amended and approved it on Tuesday.
HB 567: Repeal a current law that requires illicit cannabis sellers to purchase tax stamps for their products. Status: The bill was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last week and is scheduled for floor debate on Tuesday.
When it comes to broader legalization, while advocates generally expected resistance from Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the reform, he did say last month that he has “great interest” in the legalization proposal, and he pledged to take a serious look at its various provisions.
Last year, the legislature significantly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program by passing a bill that allows physicians to recommend cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
Two other recent polls—including one personally commissioned by a top Republican lawmaker—have found that a majority of voters are in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Marijuana Meeting With Governor’s Office As New Poll Shows Majority Support For Legalization
Legislative leaders will meet with the office of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) on Tuesday to continue negotiating a plan to legalize marijuana in the state—a development that comes as a new poll shows majority support for the policy change among voters.
With the legislative session ending on June 9, there’s a sense of urgency to enact the reform, which has long been a goal of the Lamont administration and top lawmakers. They’ve held several meetings to reach an agreement about what a legal cannabis market should look like, but there are still some sticking points that need to be resolved.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said negotiations are currently centering on who would qualify as a social equity applicant. Getting that designation would come with benefits in the cannabis business licensing process.
“We’re working with the administration. We have a meeting lined up for this evening. We’ve certainly gotten some edits from the administration that we were able to consider,” he said during a press briefing on Tuesday.
“We’re really finalizing on getting down to the definition of an equity applicant. I think that’s been the primary goal for folks on both sides of the discussion,” he said. “We do have a definition that we’ll share with the administration so that we can move forward from there.”
Given the tight deadline legislators are facing—in addition to the progress being made in negotiations—House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) said earlier this month that the legislature would be open to taking up the issue in a special session to resolve differences between the legalization bills that have been put forward by lawmakers and Lamont.
The governor’s chief of staff said that administration officials have been “meeting with legislative negotiators,” and they’re “waiting for them to provide us a revised draft” of a reform bill. It appears that lawmakers are making some progress toward that goal with Rojas saying they will present the governor’s office with a new equity definition on Tuesday evening.
Advocates are pleased to see the high-level discussions reaching the point of nailing down what kind of cannabis business constitutes an equity applicant.
“Defining equity has always been at the heart of the legalization conversation and I’m encouraged that our legislative champions are laser focused on getting this right,” Jason Ortiz, the policy director for the pro-legalization advocacy group CURE CT and a member of a legalization working group assembled by Lamont that issued recommendations on social equity. “This is the hard part, but getting here is a strong sign we are close to final language and that’s incredibly exciting.”
According to a new poll, Connecticut voters are done waiting for legalization to happen.
Sixty-four percent of residents in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, the survey from Sacred Heart University that was released on Tuesday found.
Further, 76 percent of respondents said that marijuana has the same or fewer effects compared to alcohol. And 62 percent said they favor expunging prior cannabis convictions.
They survey involved interviews with 1,000 residents from April 20-26. And the results are consistent with past polling on the subject.
A bill to legalize marijuana for adult use that the governor proposed as part of his budget cleared the Judiciary Committee last month after being amended by the panel. But if a legalization measure isn’t enacted this year, Lamont said earlier this month that he anticipates that the issue could go before voters.
“Marijuana is sort of interesting to me. When it goes to a vote of the people through some sort of a referendum, it passes overwhelmingly. When it goes through a legislature and a lot of telephone calls are made, it’s slim or doesn’t pass,” the governor said. “We’re trying to do it through the legislature. Folks are elected to make a decision, and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t, we’ll probably end up in a referendum.”
Ritter similarly said last year that if the legislature isn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he will move to put a question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.
A competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D), which is favored by many legalization advocates for its focus on social equity, was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee in March.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
But while advocates have strongly criticized the governor’s plan as inadequate when it comes to equity provisions, Ritter said in March that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Rojas also said that “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”
To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.
In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
Ritter said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.