Featured photo: From left to right, Gabriel Sanchez, Hector Sanchez and Kattya Castellon stand in front of their shop, Essential Hemp in downtown Greensboro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Why us?

That’s the question a couple hemp-shop owners in Greensboro are asking themselves after their stores were raided by Greensboro police and their products seized. Police detectives determined that the products are were illegal, though they were purchased from reputable, legal suppliers according to the owners.

In mid and late September, Detective DS Rake with the Greensboro Police Department executed search warrants at Essential Hemp downtown and at three OG Hustler Smoke Shop locations in the city. More than $50,000 in product was seized from the four shops, and one shop owner has been charged and arrested.

Essential Hemp, located at 529 S. Elm St. next to Bourbon Bowl and Hudson’s Hill, is co-owned by Hector Sanchez and his partner, Kattya Castellon. The shop opened in July. The business sells hemp products including those with CBD and the more recently popular Delta-8 THC, which unlike traditional cannabis, is legal in North Carolina. Filings for OG Hustler Smoke Shops show that they have been in business for less than a year. The locations sell a myriad of things including sodas, cigarettes and some CBD and hemp products.

According to the search warrants for Essential Hemp and OG Hustler Smoke Shop, multiple “marijuana” products were seized from the businesses because they were found to be “illegal” under North Carolina law. While marijuana is not legal in the state of North Carolina, in 2018 the state piggybacked off the federal government’s Farm Bill which noted that hemp could be legally grown and sold in the state. Hemp is derived from the same plant family that produces marijuana — cannabis. However, the Farm Bill noted that as long as hemp products contained less than 0.3 percent of Delta-9 THC, the compound in the plant that gives the user a high, they would be permitted. And so, thousands of hemp and CBD shops began popping up across the country and in the state. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to drive down Battleground Avenue without noticing some kind of hemp or smoke shop on almost every block. That’s what led Sanchez and Castellon to open their business earlier this year.

Like many other owners in the hemp trade, Sanchez, Castellon and Walled Musleh of OG Hustler Smoke Shop say they are careful about where they get their products, only purchasing those with reports known as “certificates of analysis” from wholesalers. These reports break down the chemical compounds of each item. Sanchez said, according to the certificates they have for their products, none of them are illegal.

“My point is that it’s completely false,” Sanchez said. “We sell Delta-8 which is completely legal.”

And that’s where things get a bit confusing.

Delta-8 and Delta-10 products are some of the most popular items in hemp and CBD shops these days. Many of these items contain varying amounts of different types of THC, making them highly desirable in states like North Carolina, where traditional marijuana is not yet legal. But according to state law, it’s not the total amount of THC overall in a product that determines whether or not it is illegal. It’s specifically the percentage of Delta-9 THC that is in question. And that’s where Sanchez and his attorney believe GPD got it wrong.

‘They don’t know what they’re doing’

According to the search warrant, Rake and other GPD officers conducted controlled buys of various products from Essential Hemp in August 2021. They then sent a few products, including three grams of Moon Rock flower and a Hyper Delta-10 vape cartridge, to Avazyme Laboratory in Durham for testing. The test results, according to the GPD, showed that the products had 1.79 percent and 3.05 percent “THC concentration” respectively, which they noted was above the legal limit of 0.3 percent. In all, Sanchez noted that the officers confiscated about $30,000 worth of product from their business.

However, certificate of analyses provided to Triad City Beat by Sanchez for products seized by GPD, including those for the Moon Rock flower and the Delta-10 cartridge, show that the Delta-9 THC percentages are all under 0.3%.

The moon rock product by Jazzy CBD shows a total THC level of .311 percent but just a 0.198 percent of Delta-9 THC. A certificate for the Delta-8/Delta-10 Blue Dream cartridge by Diamond CBD shows a total THC percentage of 93.72 but that it comes from Delta-8 and Delta-10, not Delta-9. Based on these breakdowns, Sanchez’s attorney Brennan Aberle believes that the police officers misinterpreted the data they received from Avazyme Laboratory.

“The way that the police are behaving it seems like they don’t know what they’re doing,” Aberle said.

Still, the attorney said they won’t know for sure because they haven’t seen the actual lab results that the police department received from Avazyme to conclude whether the police’s interpretation was false. For that, Aberle said he is filing a subpoena to get the lab results that GPD used to charge and arrest Sanchez on Oct. 25, more than a month after his product was seized.

Aberle also believes that Sanchez was only arrested “in retaliation” to an article by the News & Record that was published on Oct. 21. In the article, both Aberle and Sanchez asked why there had been no charges filed against Sanchez if the police department thought they were selling marijuana more than a month earlier. Shortly after the article came out, an arrest warrant for Sanchez was executed, charging him with possession of a Schedule VI controlled substance, possession with intent to sell or distribute a controlled substance and maintaining a dwelling for the purposes of keeping controlled substance. Sanchez was eventually released on a promise to appear in court in November.

Gabriel Sanchez, Hector and Kattya behind the counter at Essential Hemp (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

In the meantime, Sanchez and Castellon say they’re going to fight the charges, insisting they haven’t done anything wrong.

“I think that we were targeted because we are a hemp shop downtown that sells Delta-8 flower that resembles marijuana and GPD had a hard time distinguishing,” Sanchez said. “And I don’t think it’s our responsibility to solve that for them.”

They’ve reopened their shop and said they are selling different Delta-8 or Delta-10 products, but not loose flower because they think that’s what confused the officers. On Tuesday, the police department returned close to half of the product that had been confiscated from Sanchez and Castellon’s shop back. The bulk of the products were edibles such as crispy rice treats, cookies and gummies. A few flower products were also returned. None of it can be resold.

According to GPD Public Information Officer Ron Glenn, everything that the police deemed to be illegal was kept by GPD.

“The illegal products were confiscated in that search, and anything not deemed illegal was returned,” Glenn said.

‘I think it’s racism’

While Sanchez and Castellon don’t want to believe they were targeted because of their race, they said that as one of the only Latinx-owned businesses in the downtown area, they can’t help but think that their ethnicity played a role in what happened.

“I think that due to the fact that we’re Hispanic,” Castellon said. “Because I don’t know any other shops that are Hispanic downtown.”

Sanchez and Castellon aren’t the only ones that believe their business was targeted because of race.

Amari Jabaly, one of the managers of OG Hustler Smoke Shop on Bessemer Avenue, also believes his father’s shops were the target of police raids because they are Arabic Muslims. Jabaly, who was working the shop on Tuesday afternoon, said that the owners of the shops are his brother Khaled Musleh and his father Walled Musleh, who were listed in three separate search warrants. The warrants were executed on Sept. 20, just days after Essential Hemp was raided.

There are three OG Hustler Smoke Shop locations around Greensboro. All of them, including this one off Bessmer Street, were raided according to owner Walled Musleh. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

According to Jabaly and Walled, Greensboro officers led by Detective D.S. Rake raided their three shops and confiscated approximately $10,000 worth of hemp products and also $30,000 in cash. According to Jabaly, he was pulled over by Greensboro police around the same time, was handcuffed and forced to direct the officers to his home to find his brother and his father. When he arrived at the home, Jabaly said that more officers, including several from Homeland Security, were waiting outside. According to the search warrants for Essential Hemp and the OG Hustler Smoke Shop locations, Rakes is a “task force officer with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations” in addition to being a GPD officer in the vice/narcotics division. Jabaly and Walled said they were never shown a warrant before police entered their home. Walled and Jabaly also told TCB that no one associated with the business has been charged or arrested since the searches.

Glenn from the GPD noted that he cannot comment on ongoing investigations, the process or “when or if charges will be taken out.”

Still, Jabaly said that as small-business owners, losing $40,000 of assets has hit the shops hard.

“We are struggling,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon at the Bessemer Street location, Jabaly mostly sold packs of cigarettes and cigars over a half hour. He says CBD products only make up a small percentage of his sales. That’s why he says he doesn’t understand why their businesses were targeted. There’s only one reason that he can think of.

“I think it’s racism,” Jabaly said. “I think someone said something. I mean isn’t it weird? Why don’t they go to the white folks down the road?”

And that’s a question that’s been on the Walled Musleh’s mind too.

“There is everybody doing it,” he said in a phone call on Tuesday. “Everybody has [Delta-8]. [Police] said they’re going to every shop, but I haven’t heard of other shops being raided.”

‘GPD is in over their head’

In Greensboro alone, more than 30 businesses sell some kind of CBD or hemp product, according to a Google search. And many of them sell products that are exactly the same or very similar to the products that were confiscated from Essential Hemp and OG Hustler Smoke Shops.

At Glass City Smoke Shop on Battleground, various Delta-8 products filled the case as the employee behind the counter helped customers find what they were looking for. Everything from flower to gummies to rocks to cookies with Delta-8 in them were on display. One of the products was a Terp Nation Delta-8 product called “Moon Rocks” that was very similar to the Moon Rocks seized by GPD from Essential Hemp. A quick scan of the QR code on the packaging found that like Essential Hemp’s product, the Terp Nation version showed what appeared to be a total THC percentage that was higher than 0.3 percent. But on closer inspection, the number was attributed solely to a 4.39 percentage of Delta-8 THC while the Delta-9 THC percentage was listed as 0.

At the nearby Apotheca, a bunch of 3 Chi products, which Detective Rake had deemed to all be “illegal” in his search warrant, hung on the walls. Six different kinds of Delta-8 bud, Delta-8 Blue Dream carts and various gummies, carts and chocolates were also on display. Smoke Rings and Hemp XR, both a few minutes way, also sold dozens of Delta-8 products with varying levels of Delta-8 THC.

And that’s why Aberle said that he believes their case against the GPD, which has been initiated by a formal complaint, is strong. Now that Sanchez has been charged criminally, Aberle will be able to ask for materials during the discovery process of the legal proceedings. That’s when he hopes to get the actual lab tests that the police department used as justification for seizing product from and eventually arresting Sanchez.

“If the labs are actually good, why wouldn’t they just show it to everybody?” Aberle asked. “Why wouldn’t they show it to the magistrate? Why wouldn’t they show it to us? If the labs prove what they say it proves, then just turn it over. I don’t know what they’re doing…. But my thought is GPD is in over their head and they’d rather hand this over to the prosecutor’s office and they can now decide what to do with it.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Detective Rake said that he couldn’t comment on the case and that any questions should be directed to Police Chief Brian James. While James could not be reached, Glenn, the public information officer, reiterated that the officers involved acted appropriately and executed search warrants because they had “probable cause” that illegal activity was taking place at the businesses. When asked exactly what the probable cause was, Glenn did not mention specifics, but that there was enough for a judge to execute a search warrant.

Whether or not there was actual probable cause will be determined at a probable cause hearing that will take place within 15 days of Sanchez’s first appearance in court which is scheduled for Nov. 30. There officers will have to testify under oath as to what the probable cause was. They will also need to show the lab reports by Avazyme at that time.

“If they don’t bring them and a judge determines that there was no probable cause, the judge could dismiss the case right then and there,” Aberle said.

Sanchez said he also reached out to Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Police Chief Brian James via a letter expressing his frustration with how the police treated him.

“We feel we gave them an off ramp,” Sanchez said. “We gave an off ramp to Police Chief Brian James and to Mayor Nancy Vaughan, but we haven’t heard from anyone from the mayor’s office or the GPD.”

On Wednesday, Vaughan told TCB that she responded to Sanchez’s letter and told him that the reason why he wasn’t charged for a month was because the police were waiting for lab results to come back. She also told Sanchez and Aberle how to file a formal complaint against the GPD, which they ended up doing. As for why Essential Hemp and OG Hustler Smoke Shops were targeted even though other shops sell similar items, Vaughan said that they weren’t the first shops to be investigated.

“I don’t know anything about these other shops, but I don’t believe Essential Hemp was the first,” Vaughan said. “I’ve never even been in a hemp store so my knowledge is limited.”

Kattya Castellon and Hector Sanchez think they have a pretty strong case against the GPD who confiscated close to $30,000 worth of product from their store. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

When the police raided their business in September, Sanchez and Castellon said that they were stressed out and didn’t sleep much.

“We own a family business,” Sanchez said. “One of the reasons why we have this family business is because we know that Greensboro wants family businesses downtown. What happened to us was very hurtful emotionally, financially but it didn’t break our spirit. To see and to know that another family is going through this and to be able identify with their anger, frustration, financial difficulty, emotional difficulty, it makes us feel really bad about the state of things in Greensboro when families are opening businesses and then the police become a major obstacle for their success.”

But now, with the help of Aberle and the support of the community behind them, they’re confident that they will come out on top.

“When you have nothing to hide and you have done nothing wrong, it’s frustrating and upsetting but other than that, the truth is going to come out,” Castellon said. “And it’s going to be in our favor.”

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