Former cantaloupe growers, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, owed $26,368 in restitution imposed by the U.S. District Court in Denver when they decided to work off their debt by helping with a family hemp growing operation.
Their time as cantaloupe growers in Southwest Colorado did not go so well when Listeria contaminated their crop, resulting in 33 deaths and scores of illnesses.
The brothers on, Jan. 30, 2014, each pleaded guilty to counts of introducing, aiding and abetting the adulterated food into interstate commerce. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hagarty sentenced each to six months home detention and five years probation.
Just as the Jensens were looking for their next jobs, Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill allowing cultivation of hemp for research purposes and encouraging state “pilot programs.” Colorado enlisted early, becoming one of the nation’s leading hemp producers. The THC limit for industrial hemp is 0.3 percent. If a crop exceeds the ceiling, the Colorado Department of Agriculture will destroy it. Industrial hemp is different than medicinal or recreational marijuana and therefore subject to different regulations.
The Jensen’s hemp farm, actually owned by Eric’s son, is just 10 miles from the Kansas-Colorado border at Holly, CO. In January 2017, Fed-Ex picked up 300 pounds of boxed hemp at the Jensen farm. It was bound for California, another state involved in the new era of the hemp industry.
But the shipment did not immediately go west to California, it went east to a Fed-Ex warehouse in Liberal, KS. Kansas is not moving as quickly on hemp as Colorado and California. Only recently has Kansas been conducting industrial hemp research.
At the FedEx warehouse, some employees reportedly called the Kansas Highway Patrol after “smelling marijuana,” The state patrol seized the shipment.
The seized shipment put industrial hemp farmers who are promoted by Colorado in fear of being arrested in neighboring Kansas. Kansas officials tried to extradite Eric Jensen and failed. They did no go after Ryan.
But the Kansas prosecutor for Seward County did charge the brothers in January 2019 with four felonies including distributing marijuana and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
The Jensen brothers are far from the first industrial hemp growers to get caught in the transition that’s occurring. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in May ruled that states may not interfere with the interstate transport of industrial hemp.
The Jensen’s shipment included documentation that the hemp contained less than 0.3 percent THC. But that did not stop Kansas Patrol Lt. Josh Biera from seizing it because “there was an extremely strong odor of marijuana coming from each of the boxes.”
Van Hampton, the Dodge City attorney representing Eric Jensen, wants to get the seized hemp tested. But Seward County Judge Clint Peterson won’t hold a hearing on the motion to even consider a testing order.
The only sanctioned lab in Kansas for such a test is also dragging its feet.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) doesn’t want to be involved with a criminal case. And, Kade Goodwin, the assistant prosecuting attorney, does want to ship a sample to another state or third-party lab. He thinks the KDA needs to be more cooperative.
At the moment, it a stalemate. Without testing Kansas cannot prove its charges but neither can the Jensens prove their case.
In their earlier brush with the law, the deadly Listeria outbreak occurred because of multiple failures at Jensen Farms. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found Jensen Farms suffered from a “general lack of awareness of food safety principles.”
The deadly Listeria outbreak involved 33 deaths and one miscarriage. The 147 confirmed Listeria patients were spread across 28 states. And, 143 of the victims required hospital treatment. The Jensen brothers and others in their distribution network recalled thousands of fresh cantaloupe.
The Jensen brothers grew cantaloupe near the Kansas-Colorado border, outside of the Rocky Ford cantaloupe growing area in the Arkansas River Valley.
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