UPDATE: Laramie County prosecutor David Singleton and attorneys for the defendants questioned Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations Special Agent John Briggs on Thursday during the start of the preliminary hearing. Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Williams is presiding over the hearing, which was extended to an as-yet-unannounced date. — Ed.
Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agents in November raided an Albin hemp farm, operated by two people instrumental in legalizing the crop in Wyoming, court filings show.
DCI and Laramie County prosecutors are accusing the mother-and-son farmers of growing marijuana with the intent to distribute because the 700-plus pounds of dried plant material law enforcement seized tested slightly above the legal THC-concentration limit of 0.3%, according to a DCI affidavit. 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.
The farmers, Deb Palm-Egle and her son, Josh Egle, could face years, even decades, in prison if convicted.
The Egles intended to grow hemp, and their crop tested below the legal limit before the raid, according to documents filed by their attorney, trial lawyer Tom Jubin of Cheyenne.
In the July 6 court filing, Jubin argues there is a pile of evidence that the farmers intended to grow hemp, beginning with the fact that they testified in front of legislative committees in favor of legalizing this agricultural practice in Wyoming.
The case comes up for a preliminary hearing tomorrow in Laramie County Circuit Court. Jubin declined to comment, but his filing indicates he will ask the judge to dismiss the case because his clients did not intend to grow marijuana, which he argues should invalidate all the charges.
The Legislature legalized industrial hemp farming in 2017, though it became law without then-governor Matt Mead’s signature — a sign of his disapproval.
Jubin’s list of expected witnesses includes high-ranking politicians. Wyoming State Treasurer Curt Meier, a former state senator, along with House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride — all proponents of hemp farming who interacted with the charged farmers during legislative hearings on the statutes — are listed as potential witnesses. All three submitted testimony that they believe the Egles intended to grow hemp, not marijuana.
Political proponents of hemp have touted it as a way to diversify Wyoming’s fossil-fuel dependent economy and provide a new crop for the state’s agriculturists.
A photograph of the Egles standing next to Gov. Mark Gordon at the March 6, 2019 signing of a follow-up bill legalizing hemp production and processing is also included in the filing.
Jubin is also arguing that while DCI’s tests found the plants contained above the legal limit for THC, their concentration of the psychoactive ingredient was far too low to be effective as an illegal intoxicant.
DCI agents put the plants through a series of 10 tests, according to the charging documents. In nine of those, the concentration tested higher than 0.3%, according to the charging documents. The highest test level came back at 0.6% THC.
But for someone looking to get high, smoking these plants would be a disappointment. A review of recreational marijuana dispensary websites in Fort Collins, Colorado shows most “flowers,” the smokable buds of the plants, contain 15% THC or more.
“A crop of hemp containing in the neighborhood of .3 percent — or even over one percent, would be entirely unmarketable as marijuana,” Jubin argued in his July 6th filing. Selling such a product “on the illegal black market” could even put the seller at risk of retaliation, Jubin argued.
“Selling such a plant representing it to be marijuana could endanger the seller as it has no significant psychoactive properties, and any purchaser would consider himself duped or cheated,” he wrote. Nor could the farmers sell the crop in the legal marijuana market, because it did not come from a licensed grow operation, Jubin argued.
Prosecutors, however, are leveling serious charges against the farmers. These include 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 conspiracy and possession-with-intent-to-deliver charges carry prison sentences of zero to 10 years. Possession of a felony weight of marijuana — over three ounces — carries a prison sentence of zero to five years.
Two more people, Brock and Shannon Dyke, who were present at the farm the day of the raid, face identical charges. Brock Dyke was a contractor doing work for the Egles, according to Jubin’s filing.
Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Ann Manlove did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
Tipster led to ‘bust’
The trail to DCI’s raid on the farm in sleepy Albin, east of Cheyenne near the Nebraska border, began on Sept. 4, according to the charging documents. That day, a “reliable source of information” contacted DCI Special Agent J. Briggs and said he was concerned Palm-Egle was growing marijuana. The source said he or she “has known PALM-EGLE for some time,” Briggs wrote in his affidavit. The reliable source said they had seen a new addition on Palm-Egle’s farm and “believed that the new addition was what was described as a ‘greenhouse,’” Briggs wrote. The source “also claimed that he/she, noticed ‘blue lights coming from the greenhouse.’”
The source also said that Palm-Egle, who is in her 60s, talked in conversation about marijuana easing the symptoms of her multiple sclerosis.
More than a month after the tip, on Oct. 28, DCI’s Briggs “attempted to conduct physical surveillance on the residence,” he wrote. He saw car tracks but no people.
On Nov. 1, Briggs returned to the farm with another agent and went looking for someone to talk to. They did not find anyone, even after knocking on doors and entering “open barns” to look “around corners in areas that someone could possibly be, with the inability to hear Agents announcing themselves,” Briggs wrote.
He did not find anyone to talk to, but spotted “what appeared to be raw plant form marihuana” hanging in a barn with no door to hide it. Briggs then did some research, according to his affidavit. An official at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture told him that no hemp licenses had been granted yet. Briggs also found that Palm-Egle was once the registered agent for a Denver-based marijuana company, but the company no longer had a grow license.
The morning of Nov. 4, agents executed a search warrant and raided the farm, where they found the Dykes, along with their two children. Jubin describes Brock Dyke as a building contractor who worked for the Egles.
“My clients are honest small business owners,” Michael Bennett, a Laramie-based attorney representing the Dykes, said. Bennett declined to comment further on the case.
When the agents entered the barn, they found the plants had been taken down and the buds had been placed in “large brown paper bags.”
According to Briggs, Brock Dykes in an interview told the agent the plants were “clones” of marijuana plants Josh Egle had brought from a marijuana grow in Colorado.
According to Jubin’s filing, Dykes told DCI Agent Jason Moon during the raid that the crop was hemp. He provided the agent text messages from the farmers with the results of two previous tests the farmers had a commercial lab conduct on the crop. Both those tests, as well as a third one that is included as evidence in Jubin’s filing, came back below 0.3% THC. Moon shared those results with other investigating law enforcement officers, Jubin said.
Jubin will argue that the fact that the farmers were testing their crop at all suggests they were growing hemp, not pot, he wrote in his filing. This idea is consistent with what “one of the DCI agents on scene at the time of the search has said,” Jubin wrote.
“It is very surprising that this matter has come this far and gotten to this point,” Jubin wrote.
The agents took the plants in the barn, “as well as a small amount of high grade marihuana from inside the residence,” that the Dykes denied ownership of. The agents seized 327,600 grams of plants, according to the affidavit. That’s roughly 722 pounds.