August 22, 2019
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Bangor head shop owner to plead guilty to pot growing charge

Gabor Degre | File
Gabor Degre | File
Christopher Ruhlin is shown in this file photo in the smoking parlor of the Herbal Tea and Tobacco shop.

The owner of a head shop and hookah lounge in downtown Bangor is scheduled later this month to admit that he took part in a conspiracy to grow and sell pot and trying to hide the cash proceeds from the bank regulators.

Christopher Ruhlin, 49, of Holden, owner of Herbal Tea & Tobacco and the former 13 Owls Club smoking lounge, located at 44 Main St., and his employee, Terrence Sawtelle, 49, of Bangor, were indicted Sept. 14 by a federal grand jury on one count each of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana.

Ruhlin, who has owned the shop since 2011, also was indicted on two counts of maintaining a drug-involved place and seven counts of structuring bank transactions to avoid reporting deposits of $10,000 or more to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Both men last fall pleaded not guilty to the charges. They remain free on $5,000 unsecured bail.

In a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Ruhlin will plead guilty June 19 in U.S. District Court in Portland to the drug conspiracy count and to one count of structuring three deposits of $9,000 cash each on May 28, 2013, according to court documents. In exchange for his guilty pleas, federal prosecutors will drop the other charges when Ruhlin is sentenced.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office originally sought to seize property, cash and others assets obtained with proceeds from marijuana sales. The plea agreement calls for Ruhlin to pay the government $115,000 instead.

Ruhlin’s attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor, said Thursday in an email that his client “sees the writing on the wall” and wanted to “stay ahead of it and be better postured for sentencing” by avoiding a trial.

“In the long run, his plea will be his statement acknowledging that he violated federal law,” Silverstein said. “As a practical matter, however, he became somewhat deluded by the mixed signals society sends regarding marijuana. While still violative of federal law, he operated within the spirit of the state system and allowed small marijuana sales to medicinal patients only.

“He did nothing different than many other ‘caregiver storefronts’ continue to do and allowed himself to believe those ongoing practices by many others to be a state regulatory issue,” the attorney continued. “Mr. Ruhlin wants to resolve this matter without a costly and public government fight so he can soon return to his family and community. He meant no one any harm and limited his conduct to those who qualified under state law.”

Ruhlin is not licensed with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services as a medical marijuana caregiver, according to court documents.

Sawtelle’s attorney, Charles Hodsdon of Bangor, declined to comment on the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also refused to comment. It is the practice of federal prosecutors not to speak with reporters until a case has been resolved.

Maine voters first approved marijuana for medical use in 1999 but it was three years before the rules were implemented. Voters expanded the law in 2009 and the rules went in effect the following year when prosecutors allege Ruhlin and Sawtelle began growing marijuana in a leased facility on North Searsport Road in Frankfort.

By pleading guilty, Ruhlin will admit that between December 2010 and November 2013 he leased a facility in Frankfort where marijuana was grown. Ruhlin allegedly left the conspiracy in 2014, but sold marijuana grown there by others between May 2014 and Aug. 25, 2016, when agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided the Main Street building. Agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported that they’d seized about 400 marijuana plants, 295 marijuana root bulbs, processed marijuana, receipts from a garden center totalling about $25,000 and other items on May 12, 2016, during a raid of the Frankfort facility.

In August 2016, 23 containers of processed marijuana were seized from the 13 Owls Club smoking lounge, adjacent to Herbal Tea & Tobacco, court documents said.

Three months after the second raid, Maine voters approved a referendum legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and Donald Trump was elected president. The rules about distribution of recreational pot still are pending.

Growing and distributing marijuana remains a federal crime, but Maine’s U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank has said his office would focus on more deadly drugs such as cocaine, fentanyl and heroin.

Ruhlin still owns the shop and has locations on Main Street and Hogan Road, according to Silverstein. He no longer runs the lounge but has rented out that space to raise funds, the attorney said.

Three other men, Jeremy Duguay, 35, Nicholas Reynolds, 33, both of Bangor and James Mansfield, 33, of Etna, have pleaded guilty to the marijuana growing and distribution charges. All are free on bail while awaiting sentencing.

All five men face up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $1 million on the drug charges. Ruhlin faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the structuring bank transactions counts.

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