WATFORD CITY, N.D.-A northwest North Dakota tobacco store owner who is facing charges for selling products allegedly containing an illegal substance derived from marijuana says he did not know that he could be violating the law, and contends that ingredients in his merchandise do not fall under controlled substance classifications.
The Northwest Narcotics Task Force raided both of Falesteni Abuhamda's stores simultaneously last month, seizing a number of items that listed CBD, a compound found in marijuana and industrial hemp, as an ingredient.
Agents took waxes, lotions, oils and candies which were advertised as containing CBD, also known as cannabidiol.
This week, Abuhamda was charged with delivery of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school, a Class A felony; possession of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school, a Class B felony; possession of hashish, a Class C felony; manufacturing of drug paraphernalia, a Class C felony; two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia and one count of possession of a controlled substance, all misdemeanors.
The allegations were filed Monday in district court.
Both of Abuhamda's stores in are close proximity to public schools in Alexander and Watford City, where 15 officers arrived at each site in early April.
"They came in here in force, it was a big drug bust, I didn't know what it was about," he said.
"They said it was about CBD, and I started telling them how it's legal."
The Drug Enforcement Administration did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on how CBD is classified under federal law.
The North Dakota Century Code lists a number of compounds extracted from the cannabis plant as controlled substances, but still, specifics aren't clear when it comes to CBD. Cannabidiol has seen growing popularity because of its medicinal properties, which proponents say include symptom relief for those suffering from epilepsy, anxiety and depression.
The substance does not have the same effect as THC, the more well-known psychoactive compound in marijuana that can cause hallucinations.
Products with CBD on the ingredient list are found in many stores, including major big-box retailers, Abuhamda said, adding that he stocks his store with products that are manufactured by companies across the United States.
"There's just so much confusion on the subject, for them to be so confident about it, saying 'You knew' (these things are illegal)," he said. "How would I know when everyone in the world thinks it's legal?"
Abuhamda opened his store in Alexander three years ago, and expanded to Watford City last fall. He considered the venture a new start after losing money as a developer in the New Jersey area about six years ago.
"No way would I sell something that I know is illegal, this is my last leg, this is my second chance," he said.
Undercover agents visited his stores in February after Abuhamda advertised via social media that he'd just stocked a wax containing CBD. Numerous other undercover purchases followed, which tested positive for CBD, and one of which contained THC, according to the state crime lab.
During the execution of a search warrant in April, agents allegedly found a small amount of marijuana in Abuhamda's residence, which is connected to the store.
Police say in an affidavit of probable cause that Abuhamda said he'd gotten the marijuana from a friend for his own use, but he said this week that he routinely cleans up an abandoned lot next to the store where young people discard small amounts of the drug after using it.
"We find these little containers and we collect it," he said. "Three years we've been here, and we've been picking it up. I just wanted to destroy it myself."
The charge of possession of hashish likely came from something in that collection, he added.
"I'm thinking that might be something that was thrown into that - that wasn't for sale."
Earlier this month, a Bismarck news station aired a story featuring two stores that were selling CBD oil. About a week later, the Bismarck Police Department's Narcotics Unit raided both stores, telling employees that CBD is considered a controlled substance.
The incident has not resulted in criminal charges at Terry's Health Products, where employees pulled the products in question off of the shelves.
"The detectives were under the impression that no charges would be filed because there was no intent (to sell an illegal substance,") store owner Lonna Brooks said.
The product at her store contained CBD from an industrial hemp plant, as opposed to being derived from marijuana, which she said is an important distinction.
In a statement that Abuhamda's attorney sent to the McKenzie State's Attorney's Office on April 28, he claims that the products seized from his stores contained the variety of CBD that is produced from industrial hemp.
"Right now we're in talks with all the manufacturers, trying to figure out the legality of our stuff," Abuhamda said on Thursday.
He is scheduled to appear in court on July 20 for a preliminary hearing.