Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

Wyoming columnist

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Josh Egle wanted to grow hemp in Wyoming.

He and his mother Debra Palm-Egle stood next to Gov. Mark Gordon in March 2019 for the signing of a bill legalizing hemp production in the state. During the previous three years, mother and son both lobbied for the legislation and promoted the industry as a way for struggling Wyoming farmers to grow a potentially lucrative new crop.

In November, Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agents swarmed their farm near Albin, where Egle was curing a small test crop of hemp. Five months later, the mother, son and two workers they employed were all charged with several felonies — including conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or possess marijuana —- that could have put them behind bars for decades.

The charges were blatantly excessive, and the evidence overwhelmingly showed the defendants had no intentions to grow or market marijuana. Fortunately, a Laramie County Circuit Court judge dismissed all charges against them at an Aug. 6 preliminary hearing.

The case’s sudden end puts to rest the legal injustice, but important questions remain. Why did the state’s investigative agency recklessly pursue a case that a little probing would have revealed at most amounted to a misdemeanor of growing hemp without a license? And why did prosecutors compound that mistake by filing such extreme charges and going for the jugular?

This case was so weak that Barney Fife would have sniffed around the scene for a few minutes and headed back to Mayberry to bust jaywalkers.

How did law enforcement go so far off the rails on a sincere effort to boost Wyoming’s economy?

Egle admits he isn’t blameless. He mistepped when he began growing on a gamble that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would soon accept the state’s plan to regulate hemp production, or that Gordon would issue a much-rumored emergency order allowing the crop to be grown in the summer of 2019. Neither happened.

Egle grew about 400 plants on a quarter-acre of land, conducting experiments to determine how best to keep the plant from containing more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the legal limit under Wyoming’s hemp statutes. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets users high. Its low level in hemp keeps the crop from being categorized as a drug.

Medical or recreational marijuana legally sold in other states typically has a THC content of 15% or higher. But from 1970 until passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp, the plant was listed along with Schedule 1 drugs like LSD and heroin.

Since the state wasn’t testing hemp plants for THC content yet, Egle paid for his own tests. He said the highest THC concentration in three tests was 0.24%.

“We wanted to create a blueprint for farmers in the area who may want to grow hemp,” Egle said in an interview. He hoped to learn the optimum time frames to plant and harvest.

“We weighed our options, and decided it was worth the risk to plant an experimental crop,” Egle said. If he was penalized for growing hemp without a license, he reasoned, he would simply pay the $750 fine.

But he didn’t foresee that someone whom the DCI described as a “reliable source of information” would call the agency with a tip: The Egles were growing marijuana on a portion of their 3,000-acre wheat farm, which had been operated by the family since the 1880s.

Two DCI agents visited but found no one at home. According to an affidavit used to obtain a search warrant, they spotted what “appeared to be raw plant form marijuana” hanging in an open barn.

On Nov. 4, DCI agents in tactical gear swooped in and found building contractors Brock and Shannon Dykes outside burning wood. Agents trained their rifles on the couple, and when their 11- and 12-year-old sons were found inside the farmhouse, they were held at gunpoint as well, according to Brock Dykes. I can’t imagine the terror these innocent kids endured.

Brock Dykes explained to officers that the Egles were growing hemp. He testified that he shared the test results with lead DCI investigator John Briggs, who told him, “I’m not going to argue with you about the technical difference between hemp and marijuana.”

But law enforcement knows precisely what that difference is, and it’s central to the charges later filed. A quick Google search would have revealed the Egles were hemp advocates with a long history of growing the wonder-crop in Colorado, and their campaign to legally bring it to Wyoming was highly visible.

The DCI director and assistant director hauled away more than 700 pounds of plants. State tests later showed some of the plants had a THC content of (gasp!) 0.6%. You could smoke two truckloads of the stuff and not get high.

The Dykes’ attorney, Michael Bennett, posed a key question to Judge Antoinette Williams: 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?”

Brock Dykes called Egle after the raid. The farmer, who was in Atlanta, was shocked. But an even bigger shock awaited -— the DCI never even interviewed Egle or his mother, but they were charged with felonies in early April.

“Our intentions [to grow hemp] were known, and each charge requires intent,” Egle said. “They were never able to put the pieces together that what we were trying to do is help the state, help with a new economy. Give farmers a new option. That thought was lost on the prosecutor and lead investigator.”

The public deserves to know how much this debacle cost the state and Laramie County. Egle paid a high personal price — he estimated the crop loss and legal fees at between $80,000 and $100,000.

But what bothers him most was how authorities treated his mother — who is in her 60s and has multiple sclerosis. A resident of Denver, she was restricted to Laramie County for months and required to take weekly drug tests.

“This was during a pandemic, and she had to go sit in a [testing] facility when she had a compromised immune system and be treated like a criminal,” her son said. “She hadn’t been convicted of anything.”

Palm-Egle, who has used medical marijuana for pain relief legally in Colorado since 2000, was deprived of her medication. “You could see how it affected her health,” her son said.

Still, Egle thinks what happened can be a learning experience for prosecutors, investigators and farmers. “Hopefully soon we can get on the same page, and understand this is a chance to help farmers who have no ill intent in growing this crop,” he said.

I think he’s giving law enforcement too much credit. The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police fought hemp legalization tooth and nail for years before suddenly deciding not to oppose it late in the 2019 legislative session. This case shows not everyone in law enforcement agreed with that concession.

How many hemp farmers will risk being arrested and paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees if a nosy neighbor calls the authorities because they suspect that plant in their field is marijuana.

Exactly a week after the Egles’ case was dismissed, U.S. Attorney General William Barr appeared in Cheyenne to announce a $1 million grant was being awarded to DCI to investigate drugs, sex offenders and violent crimes.

That would pay for a lot of raids on farms in out-of-the-way places like Albin, where honest men and women want to be free to grow a harmless, beneficial and hopefully profitable plant like hemp without harassment. The public needs to hold the agency and Laramie County prosecutors accountable for this travesty of justice.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at kerry.drake33@yahoo.com.

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