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ND vape shop owner accused of selling marijuana plant extracts takes plea deal

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — A vape shop owner accused of selling products containing cannabidiol or marijuana and hemp plant extracts agreed to a plea deal Friday and will spend no time in jail.

Falestani Abuhamda was charged in May with seven counts related to possession or distribution of a controlled substance or of drug paraphernalia. Police raided Abuhamda's two Tobacco Depot stores in Alexander and Watford City in western North Dakota and seized items containing the cannabis oil or cannabidiol, as well as vape pens.

Abuhamda's lawyer, Deanna Longtin, said an appeal is possible as they claim the products were from industrial hemp plants that are legal in North Dakota.

In court Friday, Abuhamda entered an Alford plea to possession of hashish, manufacturing drug paraphernalia, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance.

In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but does admit the prosecution has enough evidence that they would be likely to prevail at trial.

One part of the agreement was that the possession of hashish charge was lowered from a class C felony to a class A misdemeanor. Todd Schwarz, assistant state's attorney for McKenzie County, said a law that went into effect in July changed the level of that charge for a first offense.

"The state is not required to do so, but in the interest of justice and resolving this matter, I think it's appropriate," Schwarz told Northwest District Judge Robin Schmidt.

Schmidt asked Abuhamda his plea to the four counts, and after each one he said he was entering an Alford plea.

"So you're admitting, sir, that the state has enough evidence that a jury could find you guilty?" Schmidt asked.

"Somewhat, yes," Abuhamda said.

"For the purposes of this plea agreement?" Schmidt clarified.

"Yes," Abuhamda said.

Schmidt followed the plea agreement and gave Abuhamda a deferred sentence on the four charges. If he does not violate probation for 360 days, they will be dismissed.

Prosecutors also agreed to pre-trial diversion on three other charges: delivery of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school, possession of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school and unlawful advertisement of drug paraphernalia. If Abuhamda completes 30 months of supervised probation, those charges will be dismissed, as well.

As part of the deal, Abuhamda will have to pay $325 in court costs, and agreed to give $2,500 to Watford City schools to support drug awareness programs.

In October, Longtin argued that the charges should be dismissed. The CBD that was in the products for sale came from the stalks of industrial hemp plants, she said. Industrial hemp is heavily regulated but is legal in North Dakota. She also argued that CBD isn't listed as illegal under state law.

Schmidt denied that request.

In court Friday, Longtin said Abuhamda was reserving his right to appeal Schmidt's decision, and if he prevailed at the state Supreme Court, he would be allowed to withdraw his pleas. Abuhamda has 30 days from Friday to file an appeal. After court, he said he was going to do so.

The prosecution has agreed to return some of the items seized during raids on Abuhamda's stores, including vape pens.

Schwarz said some of the items seized have uses other than for controlled substances.

Longtin said the vape pens had a wholesale value of at least $10,000.

After court, Abuhamda said he was in the process of converting his Alexander store to a food and tobacco outlet. Business from out-of-town customers has dropped off since he was raided, he said, and some think he was shut down by police.

"The community has been supportive and have been frequenting the shop for snacks and drinks more than before the raid," he said.

"I have great faith that Mr. Abuhamda is going to complete probation with no problem and move on with his life," she said before closing the case. "Good luck, sir."