NOTE TO OUR READERS: This first-person account from Don Wirthshafter of the Ohio Hempery reached our desk today. We present it here in its entirety. The Week Online will cover this international story as it unfolds.
A story is breaking in Nicaragua that should reach the world stage soon. I just returned from trying to turn around an ugly situation, but left without visible results. I hope some fair treatment in the U.S. and Canadian media can do some good.
The story starts with a group of Canadian investors who wanted to do some good for Nicaragua. Bankers, builders and merchants got together and incorporated Hemp Agro International with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Managua. Their website (http://www.hempagro.com) describes their project and development they hoped to bring to the tropics.
Nicaragua stagnates in the aftermath of series of natural disasters and a U.S. financed civil war. If there was ever a place to demonstrate industrial hemp's utility for sustainable economic development, Nicaragua is it. Hemp Agro planted 100 acres of Chinese hempseed and hired a full-time professional botanist to supervise a crop improvement program. The company envisioned growing a series of hempseed crops, pressing the seeds for oil, making products from hemp oil and utilizing the stalks for particleboard. The project was dependent on their developing an improved tropical variety of seed hemp, something not being attempted anywhere else in the world.
The project took on additional significance in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Tens of thousands of homes need to be replaced. The relief agencies had a choice, cut down thousands of acres of trees for building materials or accelerate the building of the hempstalk particleboard mill. Most of the traditional crops suffered heavy damage during the storm, Hemp Agro's crop withstood the winds and rain. Fifty employees were busy harvesting bags full of hemp seed and building a mountain of hemp stalks.
That's when a U.S. DEA agent went ballistic. One day before Christmas, he caused an army of black hooded soldiers to move in and occupy the field. Each posed for their picture in front of the large signboard that marked the "Hemp Agro Nicaragua, S.A. Research and Development Site" (see http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1998/diciembre/24-diciembre-1998/nacional/nacional10.html). (This and the following links are in Spanish. For those who do not speak Spanish, paste these URL's into http://babelfish.altavista.com/cgi-bin/translate? for a rough translation into English.) Then they began the long task of gathering the crop in piles and setting them on fire (http://www.elnuevodiaro.com.ni/archivo/1998/diciembre/26-diciembre-1998/).
Dr. Paul Wylie, the Canadian horticulturist who was hired by the group to supervise the project, was feeling pretty satisfied with his work in Nicaragua. His employees were busy harvesting their first crop of seeds. He had learned quite a bit about growing hemp in the tropics. Christmas was approaching and the harvesting would have to stop for the holidays. Dr. Wylie was in a taxi on his way back from the bank with the payroll for his 50 workers. A black car tried to force them off the road. A couple of motorcycles approached. Both Wylie and his driver thought they were being robbed. The driver started to head up on the curb to get away when bullets began tearing up the cab. Wylie and the driver were terrified until their attackers finally identified themselves as police. Wylie thought his troubles were over, but they were just beginning.
Wylie was arrested and taken to the brig. The same prison that former dictator, Anastasio Somoza, used for his worst political enemies. A perfect movie set for an 1850's western, except it's an historic military base. Perched on the rim of the volcano, it's got an incredible view. Only the prisoners can't see a thing, they are kept in dungeons underground.
In Nicaragua, you are considered guilty until proven innocent. Forget the right to counsel, forget the right to remain silent, this is not America. In the aftermath of his arrest, ten days of hearings took place on the case, only Wylie had no right to attend or help his attorneys prepare. He was locked up tight. Bail or bond were not available. Without an explanation of the charges, Wylie could not even figure out what he was being accused of. Thankfully, his wife was able to bring him food every day. Without family support like this, prisoners starve.
Because of my expertise in hemp and my legal credentials, I was asked to hurry down to Nicaragua and help the local attorneys the investors hired to bring reason to the situation. I was determined to prove to myself and the court that this really was industrial hemp and not marijuana that was being grown. I also wanted to visit Dr. Wylie and see if I could raise his spirits.
It took a court order to visit a prisoner in the brig, even for attorneys and translators. Armed with a court order that took days to obtain, the guards still only allowed us a short, 15-minute visit. It was barely enough time for introductions, and no time to get to the details of the case. Still, Wylie was able to briefly describe his research methodology.
Dr. Wylie described it as the George Washington Carver method of crop improvement. Start with seeds from as close to the original source as possible. (Hemp originated in southeast Asia.) This way you get the most genetic diversity. Plant a million plants. From these, find the thousand specimens that best match your breeding objectives. From these prime plants, plant a million seeds. Plant the seeds from the best 1000 plants for five years and you will see spectacular improvements in the breeding of that crop.
It was an ambitious attempt to create a tropical variety of low THC industrial hemp, but the U.S. DEA got in the way. Our drug warriors refuse to recognize a difference between hemp and marijuana. This is why the DEA is being sued by a group of Kentucky farmers (see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/042.html#kentucky and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/048.html#ky-hemp). The U.S. employed DEA agent looked at the plant in a microscope and saw the glandular trichromes characteristic of Cannabis. He concluded therefore it must be marijuana, never considering that legal industrial hemp also has these characteristic parts.
Nicaragua is in a vulnerable position. It needs a massive influx of foreign aid to begin its recovery from the civil war and Hurricane Mitch. Pressure from the U.S. diplomats orced the government to act quickly. One government minister after another came to court to kowtow to the foreign imperialists. Politicians who praised the project a week before began denying that they gave approval or claimed that the investors lied to get their permits. Ten days of hearings were held over the New Year's holiday. The tide turned from whether a crime had been committed to which government heads would roll for allowing this scandal to develop.
The scandal has occupied the front page in Managua's three papers since it broke the day before Christmas. As the tide turned against the defendants, the papers got more vicious. See the following articles:
http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1998/diciembre/30-diciembre-1998/nacional/nacional10.htmlMonday's paper featured one story about the trial (http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1999/enero/04-enero-1999/nacional/nacional7.html) and another entitled "They Sell Crack in the Schools" about a government report that ended up describing the 100 acre bust (http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1999/enero/04-enero-1999/nacional/nacional1.html).
Each of the Canadians investors in the project are now charged with major drug crimes. They are subject to arrest in Canada and extradition to Nicaragua under the reciprocal provisions of the treaties intended to bring narcotraficantes north for trial in the U.S. or Canada. We are not describing a typical bunch of criminals. Hemp Agro International was founded by established Canadian citizens who wanted to do some good for the world. As part of their many applications for permits from various Nicaragua Agencies, the group provided the authorities with paperwork certifying they each had clean criminal records in Canada. Most had never thought about ever finding themselves in a criminal court.
One problem confuses the issue for all involved. For the position of local manager, the investors chose to hire an historic figure, Oscar Danilo Blandón. Blandón is a central character in the C.I.A. drug running scandal exposed by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News and his recent book Dark Alliance (see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/043.html#garywebb). Blandón was one of the founders of the Contra party and remains well connected with the power structure in Nicaragua. But to finance the contra armies in the Reagan 1980's, Blandón helped import tons of cocaine into America. He served almost two years in a federal prison. Blandón holds an MBA, is bilingual and became quite excited by the potential of what hemp can do for his country. He proved a natural choice for project manager. But the tide turned. When the government and media branded this research plot as the "largest marijuana bust in the history of Central America," Blandón's checkered history seemed to be as proof that these gringos were up to no good.
Hemp Agro had obtained more than twenty licenses for conducting business in Nicaragua. The Agricultural Ministry was informed as to their plans and had issued licenses for the importation of Chinese seed. Nothing was hidden here, the company was doing all it could to enlist government support for the planned particleboard mill and oil crushing mill. The government ministers were invited to see the field. A large sign marked its location. The paperwork filed in Nicaragua gave the names of all of the investors. Would these steps be taken for a field of marijuana?
The defense lawyers decided to put me on the stand to give expert testimony about hemp. It was a frustrating experience. "We call it 'going to Vietnam,'" the attorneys told me in an effort to prepare me for the hearing. "It's brutal, ugly and take no prisoners." They were right. The usual civil behavior of attorneys that I am used to was not present there at all. It was war.
We prepared more than 100 pages of journal articles translated into Spanish for the court. But because these were not originals, they were not admissible. Court was held in a cramped office lined by desks with old manual typewriters. It proceeded slowly because a secretary needed type a live transcript. In my case, since my Spanish was not up to speed, a translator did his best to make meaning of my technical presentation, phrase by phrase. It crawled slowly. When a question was posed to me, the transcript would be made, the secretary would read it back as my translator put it in English, I would answer pausing for the translation and the typing. It dragged on until 7:00 pm on New Year's Day.
The courtroom was crowed with newspaper reporters and photographers who would crowded in to snap close-ups of my face. Nobody was introduced and I was not allowed to ask any questions. When I was done the lawyers commenced arcane legal arguments centering on why I did not present an embossed identification of myself as an attorney and botanist. The judge kept my bar card. I am used to court, but this was something else. It was an ambush.
I was able to describe for the court the differences between hemp and marijuana. I explained the difference in the way the crop was grown and harvested. The evidence was that the employees were beating the harvested plants on a rail "like beans." This was clearly grown and harvested seed hemp and was totally inconsistent with the methods of planting and harvesting marijuana. I explained that contrary to the assertion of the DEA, that international law gave Nicaragua sovereignty to decide the question for itself. "Cannabis grown for the purpose of industrial use" was excepted from the treaty provisions. A limit on the level of THC in the crop was up to Nicaragua to define. Switzerland, for example, has not set a limit.
I described the market for the seeds and why the oil was so special. I explained that the test performed by the DEA is incapable of discriminating hemp and marijuana. DEA agents were not violating the sovereignty of Canada or Switzerland, yet they felt at home running roughshod over our Central American neighbor. I explained why the researchers had to go to China for their seed, nothing close was available in Europe or America. The low-THC European varieties were for a far different latitude and climate and would not work in Nicaragua. Besides, they are all so protected by plant patents, registrations and restrictive contracts that the seeds would have to be bought every year. This means they would never acclimate to the Nicaraguan growing conditions and would be too unreliable to anchor an industry. China has grown hemp for seed for thousands of years. The people of the region where the seeds originated do not even have a concept of the use of the hemp plant as a drug.
I told the judge of the 22 web sites I found that sold marijuana seeds. The minimum price offered was $5 per seed. At 60,000 seeds per kilogram, a kilo of seeds would be worth $300,000. The 15,000-kilogram container shipment from China would be 4.5 billion dollars if it were marijuana. I said it was impossible and crazy to assume that this much seed could be marijuana. Besides, I told the court, this particular shipment of seeds was examined by the U.S. Customs while the container was being transshipped in Long Beach, California. The container was emptied for a DEA inspection. Only hempseeds were found. They released the shipment to go forward to its destination in Nicaragua.
I described what a hemp economy could do for Nicaragua in terms of employment and self-sufficiency. I gave good references for the Canadian defendants whom I had met. I tried to help, but it felt like I was talking to air. Yesterday, the judge found probable cause to hold the defendants up for charges. Dr. Wylie will have to languish in jail while the government works to extradite the other defendants from Canada and the U.S. Once arrested and returned "to the scene of the crime", the defendants will have no more rights than Dr. Wylie did upon his arrest. Most of the defendants were only inactive investors in the project. They have never set foot in Nicaragua. Now they will have to hire attorneys, fight extradition and suffer having their reputations smeared around the world.
Nicaragua seems adept at shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis. What started out as an exciting project to bring a new industry to a place it was truly needed, has now turned into an international scandal. It's not just the investors who are affected. For Nicaragua to progress it will need help from foreign industries and industrialists, foreign technology and technologists. When the story of how Dr. Paul Wylie was treated for his efforts in Nicaragua is spread in the international community, it will be hard to get others to commit to even visiting the country. The real losers are the local compesinos who stood to gain steady employment in the project. As it is, the government agents kept the $5000 payroll they seized from Dr. Wylie. The workers missed their Christmas pay.
There are no winners in this story. The toll will continue as long as our government obscures the difference between hemp and marijuana and its agents run roughshod over the rights of the people of Central America.
I am trying to get some help spreading the word on this story. If the government spreads it, it will be all about marijuana. The word hemp will not make it into the story. I have to come out aggressively to get the word to the media that there is a lot more behind this "bust" than meets the eye. Anyone with suggestions is welcome to write or call.
For more information, please contact Don Wirtshafter at (740) 662-4367 or [email protected], or Grant Sanders, Hemp Agro International, (905) 681-1110.