Federal shutdown puts hemp-or-dope question in limbo

Robert Smith |

Law enforcement and prosecutors remained unsure as of 4 p.m. Friday exactly what to call a substance found earlier in the week in a transport truck stopped by police in Pawhuska.

“We don’t know what we have yet,” District Attorney Mike Fisher said in a brief telephone interview.

Fisher said a lab in Dallas, Texas had examined a sample of the material from the truck and determined that the substance THC was an element of the sample. However, the lab was unable to give a THC percentage or make a determination whether it was dealing with industrial hemp or marijuana.

Fisher said state agencies in Oklahoma lacked the capacity to resolve the issue, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, commonly called the DEA, had sent a sample to a lab in the Washington, D.C., area, but that lab is  closed because of the ongoing federal government shutdown.

“So we are in a holding pattern right now,” Fisher said.

Four men have been booked into the Osage County jail and are being held on $40,000 bail apiece, Fisher said. He commented that because the case involves thousands of pounds of possible hemp or marijuana, the bail amounts would likely be much higher if there had been a determination the material was, in fact, marijuana. He said the individual bail amounts could range from $500,000 to $1 million per suspect if the substance is marijuana.

Fisher clarified it was not yet clear if this matter would develop into an actual criminal case. No formal charges had been filed when the district attorney commented.

The entire situation flowed from an early Wednesday morning traffic stop in Pawhuska.

A traffic stop just before 3 a.m. Wednesday in Pawhuska led law officers to a transport truckload of what the people transporting it said was “industrial hemp,” Pawhuska Police Chief Rex Wikel said.

Wikel said one of his officers pulled over the 18-wheeler about 2:58 a.m. and a van stopped along with the truck. The explanation provided to the police officer conducting the traffic stop was that the van was providing security for the transport truck, Wikel said. He added that the officer conducting the stop called for backup.

The truck was reportedly traveling from Kentucky to Colorado.

By late morning Wednesday, a large section of the municipal parking area behind Pawhuska City Hall was the scene of a multi-agency investigation by city, county, state and federal law officers. Pawhuska police handled security on the portion of the parking area being used. There were barricades and yellow crime scene tape. The transport truck and the van that pulled over with it were at the center of activity. Passersby had questions, such as, “Did someone die?” Television crews scrambled to get good images.

Law-enforcement involved in the investigation included federal drug-enforcement officers, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the Osage County Sheriff’s Office and the Pawhuska Police Department, Wikel said. Fisher and members of his staff were present on the investigation scene, as well.

Wikel said the federal officers were taking over the investigation. Wikel added the material being shipped in the truck had field-tested positive for marijuana, but he clarified that industrial hemp can do that. He said law officers found paperwork during the investigation that listed Illinois, Kansas and Texas as states to be avoided with the cargo in the truck.

Officers moved the transport truck from the municipal parking area downtown to the training center at the Osage County Sheriff’s Department, south of town, to unload the shipment. By early Wednesday afternoon, law officers were busy breaking open containers and examining their contents.