A hemp grower is asking a local judge to force the release of information about county authorities' destruction last fall of a large crop near Arvin that reportedly tested positive for marijuana.
Apothio LLC asserts the Kern County Sheriff's Office has improperly withheld information on a warrant approved Oct. 24 by a Kern County Superior Court judge. It was executed the next day, resulting in what the company asserts was the improper bulldozing of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hemp covering 459 acres.
The Sheriff's Office has said the plant was not hemp but illegal marijuana.
Regardless of whether the plants tested positive for marijuana, Apothio says it was legally permitted to grow the crop because it qualifies for a special federal exemption as an ag research organization. It has asked the county to pay it $1 billion in compensation but was denied.
On Wednesday, Judge J. Eric Bradshaw scheduled time April 30 to hear Apothio's motion asking him to compel release of the warrant information.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to provide information about the search warrant or give the legal basis on which Apothio's crop was destroyed. It said by email Thursday night that disclosure of such information "would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation."
Apothio's legal team declined to comment.
The case has stood out amid Kern's efforts to cultivate the county's hemp industry — already the state's largest by registered acreage — that officials hope will give local farmers a viable crop diversification option. They say it would also ward off pot growers because of the way cross-pollination with hemp weakens the potency of marijuana growing nearby.
Hemp has become more valuable in recent years because of the popularity of the cure-all known as cannabidiol, or CBD, which comes from the hemp plant.
Apothio and its top executive, former Indiana chiropractor Trent Jones, filed a $1 billion claim against the county in early November alleging the "illegal and unlawful taking" of its crop. The county rejected the claim, setting the stage for a court battle.
That battle began with Apothio filing a writ of mandate March 10 against the Sheriff’s Office and co-defendants Sheriff Donny Youngblood and Deputy Joshua Nicholson, who the company says sent the court an incomplete copy of the warrant authorized by Judge Lorna Brumfield.
The company's motion alleges the warrant was never properly filed with the Kern County Superior Court, despite a 10-day deadline to do so, and that all materials related to the search and the crop's destruction remain under the control of KCSO. The motion asserts the materials won't be released publicly unless the court intervenes.
The motion says there are no posted legal motions to seal the search warrant materials, though a court record introduced by Apothio's lawyers shows an image of a document suggesting a seal was requested and granted.
Apothio's motion says the company has an interest in knowing what information the Sheriff's Office gave the court in support of the agency's request for a search warrant. The company noted that no one has been arrested or charged in the case.
Jones, in interviews with The Californian last year, has acknowledged some of his crop tested above the federal limit of 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
He said he planned to destroy any plants that tested "hot," meaning above the legal threshold for THC. But he also emphasized that as a qualified business person with a research contract with Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest, he was not legally obligated to test or destroy the crop.
Hemp lawyers say state and federal guidelines allow people and companies working with an institute of higher education to possess, but not sell or process, hemp that tests above the federal limit. They call the research exemption a legal loophole.
The Sheriff’s Office reported Oct. 31 it had eradicated hemp on 11 fields with an estimated 10 million plants valued at more than $1 billion. It said samples of the plants measured "well above" the 0.3 percent THC limit.
A lawsuit by former business associates of Apothio accuses the company of knowingly cultivating hot hemp.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment provided after deadline by the Kern County Sheriff's Office.