BOISE — Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she is receiving calls from as far away as Phoenix about Idaho’s law outlawing hemp. An online petition signed by more than 13,000 people urging prosecutors to drop charges against three men facing criminal penalties for transporting the product through Idaho has a signature from as far away as England.
Rubel had that petition in her hands outside the Ada County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon on her way to deliver it to the office of Ada County Prosecuting Attorney Jan Bennetts. She was joined by Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, and Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, as well as a group of Treasure Valley residents.
Those in the crowd spoke with concern and frustration about Andrew D’Addario, 27, and Eric Eisenhart, 25, two out-of-state truckers carrying a shipment of industrial hemp from Colorado to Oregon. They were arrested in Ada County on suspicion of trafficking in marijuana, and due to the amount of the substance in the truck, they faced a mandatory five years in correctional custody under Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. They eventually pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver — a felony without a mandatory minimum sentence — and are scheduled for sentencing in June.
Then, in January, police arrested Denis Palamarchuk, 36, an Oregon trucker carrying more than 6,700 pounds of industrial hemp through Ada County. Palamarchuk also faces a mandatory five-year sentence if convicted.
“I would hate for this to be happening to my child,” said Tracy Olson, the Boise resident who started the petition.
Her decision to do that came after she met with Rubel about the cases. Rubel had supported an effort, spearheaded by Moon and Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, this legislative session to sponsor a bill that would have legalized hemp in Idaho, removing it from the list of controlled substances and bringing Idaho into compliance with federal law, under which hemp is legal. That effort died later in the session. Currently, Idaho law holds any substance containing tetrahydrocannabinol is marijuana for the purposes of a criminal case. Hemp contains trace amounts of THC. It does not produce a high, though, and has industrial uses.
“Although law enforcement likes to blur that line (between hemp and marijuana), it is a definite line,” Moon said.
The Idaho State Police had the samples taken from the shipment in Palamarchuk’s truck and tested to see if it was indeed hemp. The agency’s refusal to disclose the results of those tests made Olson suspicious, she said. After that, she met with Rubel and began the petition.
“I said, ‘Someone has to do something,’ and then I realized ‘someone’ was me,” Olson said.
Rubel pointed out Bennetts had complete control of the situation.
“It is entirely within the prosecutors’ power to not bring charges,” she said. “They have every freedom in the world to make this case go away today.”
Rubel added Idaho is receiving national attention for the prosecutor's decision. In Idaho, both the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken notice of the case.
"This is not what we want to be known for — locking up innocent, well-meaning truck drivers trying to do their job," she said.
Bethany Calley, spokeswoman for the Ada County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, did not have a comment on the situation Tuesday afternoon. Rubel said Bennetts agreed to meet with her after the cases had been prosecuted and said she didn’t want to discuss the particulars of a pending case, according to the lawmaker. That would be too late for D’Addario, Eisenhart and Palamarchuk, Rubel pointed out.
Even though two of the truckers aren't facing mandatory time in custody of the Department of Correction, Olson said they will still suffer the repercussions of felonies on their record. It would be harder for them to find work, find places to live and continue their education if they chose to, she said. Bennetts could still dismiss the charges against them, but those felonies will be set in stone after the truckers' June 25 sentencing.
"My question to the Ada County (Prosecuting Attorney) is 'why?'" Olson said.
“We just have to realize these are humans’ lives we are dealing with,” Moon said. “These guys were not lawyers. They were truckers. I don’t know if it would’ve been one person in 1,000 that happens to go online and do legal research (on Idaho’s hemp laws.)”
Rubel called the mistake — taking hemp through Idaho — a “very innocent” one.
She cited Palamarchuk’s upcoming court dates.
“Because of the threat of mandatory minimum sentences, he’s probably going to plead, to admit to being a drug dealer,” Rubel said.
Rubel this legislative session sponsored a bill to remove mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of drug trafficking charges, pointing out the laws took discretion from judges and had widened the judicial net, sending mere addicts to long prison terms instead of drug dealers. That bill passed the House, but was denied a hearing in the Senate by Senate Judiciary & Rules Committee Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa.
“These three individuals just got caught up in the crosshairs of really bad timing,” Olson said.
While she’s glad for the attention these cases are receiving, she knows there are many more cases in which the same laws come into play.
“What bothers me are the stories that aren’t public,” she said.