Columbus, Wis. — A Madison, Wisconsin, man was arrested after he and three other men allegedly tried to steal industrial hemp from a farm in Columbia County, Wisconsin.
Lorrell Anthony McCray, 31, faces as much as 4.5 months in prison and $5,000 in fines. Prosecutors say he tried to steal industrial hemp from a licensed hemp farm near the town of Columbus.
According to the criminal complaint, a sheriff’s sergeant discovered McCray and three other men inside a vehicle stuck in the mud alongside railroad tracks near an industrial-hemp field. Inside the vehicle the sergeant found several large garbage bags and steak knives. He also saw a beaten-down path leading from the vehicle toward the hemp field. The next day one of the hemp-farm owners reported finding a large garbage bag filled with hemp on the property.
One of the other men, Naaman Dorenzo, 34, of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is charged with operating a vehicle without a valid license in the same incident, per online court records.
“We want people to know there are licensed hemp farms registered properly throughout the state and here in Columbia County,” said Jason Kocovsky, sheriff’s captain. “Going onto their property and removing (hemp plants) is, of course, illegal, just as it would be stealing items from other farmers.”
Though the motive for stealing from the hemp farm near Columbus remains unclear, Kocovsky said hemp shares similar physical characteristics with marijuana. He said it’s possible someone might attempt to sell the hemp thinking it’s marijuana.
Donna Gilson, spokeswoman with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection said she was surprised to learn of the incident.
“But if it’s growing right in plain view, it’s probably not marijuana,” she said.
It’s not the first such incident that’s occurred this fall, Kocovsky said, though nobody else has been arrested for it.
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“We’re starting to see this more often and we’re confused, at this point, as to their purpose.” he said. “We want people to realize there is this pilot program for hemp. If somebody sees what they believe is marijuana, we encourage them to call the sheriff’s office. We can run that location or address through our records to see if they’re licensed.
“We also want people to be mindful that these are farmers trying to earn a living. When people are stealing their product, at the end of the day they have nothing to sell and they’re the ones losing out.”
The federal government in 2017 allowed states to create a pilot research program permitting cultivation of industrial hemp. The Wisconsin Department of Justice ruled in May 2018 that farmers could grow industrial hemp under the pilot program. The department also ruled that stores could sell cannabidiol — CBD — produced in compliance with regulations set by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Hemp plants are also commonly used for grain and fiber. There are currently 1,240 growers registered in the state, Gilson said.
“We really want people to educate themselves before they pay for a license or buy seed — to be aware, first, of what you’ll do with that crop,” Gilson said.
She said 10 percent to 12 percent of the samples her department tests for tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — exceed the legal limit, which is 0.3 percent or less in all parts of the plant when dried.
“Everybody is still learning about it and so we want people to get into it with eyes wide open,” she said. “We want them to succeed, but it’s high risk. Maybe five years from now it will be less risky.”
The annual registration fee for growing industrial hemp is $350 and the annual fee to process it is $100.
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.