In December 1998, Canadian botanist Paul Wylie was jailed for growing hemp in Nicaragua. Wylie was the agricultural advisor for a Canadian company called Hemp-Agro, which was growing a 1400 acre tropical hemp test crop near Managua (see CC#17, Hemp Bust in Nicaragua).
During the raid, Hemp Agro’s hemp field was burned by black-hooded government agents. Wylie was kidnapped in broad daylight and taken to prison.
Don Wirtshafter, attorney, hemp entrepreneur, activist, and ex-NORML board member, traveled to Nicaragua to argue on Wylie’s behalf, and was nearly thrown in jail for daring to question the country’s corrupt judicial system.
For twelve hard months, Wylie remained in prison while his Canadian business partners, a loyal Nicaraguan girlfriend, and Canadian government officials tried to extricate him from the gates of hell. Last December, Wylie was finally released from his torturous cell.
He returned to Canada to undergo emergency surgery and deal with the death of his only son, which occurred just days before his release.
In June, Wylie graciously consented to an exclusive interview with Cannabis Culture.
CC: Paul, it is good to welcome you home. Are you OK?
Wylie- I’m still trying to put my life back together, but I’m glad to be free.
CC: A lot of people said that growing hemp in Nicaragua was a stupid idea. But obviously you didn’t think so when you started.
No, because it was a great idea. Those countries need a clean, easy-to-grow crop like industrial hemp ? for their economies, their land, and their people. I had some good ideas about tropical hemp crops, and my partners had connections there. So I went down and talked to Nicaragua’s Finance Minister and the Agriculture Minister in 1996 and ’97, and they were very enthusiastic about hemp. They were totally supportive of this crop.
CC: You chose to use a rather infamous Nicaraguan national as your in-country contact person?
Yes, we worked with Danilo Blandon, who has been written about in books and elsewhere for his alleged role in smuggling cocaine for the US government, the DEA. But we didn’t believe or care about any of that. What we needed was a guy who had big connections at the highest levels of their government and a lot of confidence, and he was it.
CC: But as it turned out?
As it turned out, something went wrong. Danilo did everything he could to get the government to live up to its agreement. Something went wrong politically after we planted the first hemp crop; it was planted right near the main airport in their capitol Managua, in July, 1998. We didn’t know until it was too late.
CC: Everything was going well?
Oh yeah. The seeds I selected were thriving. The plants were huge, like three to five meters. The research and development was for hardiness, yield and seed oil production. We had a healthy first crop, and were looking to expand our acreage.
CC: Did it look like pot?
Of course not. The plants were tall and gangly. We’d planted at an intense seed density. There were no real buds ? the flowers were tiny and airy. There was no mass to them. They weren’t resiny or sticky. Nobody with a brain would think it was marijuana. It was fucking hemp!
CC: So why’d you get busted?
It was a combination of factors. One, Danilo is a controversial guy. He had a lot of baggage. Nicaragua is a strange place; about seven families own and run the whole place. They have the land, sugar cane, rum, and business sectors all tied up. They are impervious to whatever government is in power. I should have asked them if I could grow hemp on their land!
The problems started because we had a foreman who was stealing our money. The foreman was also the son of the people we had leased our land from. We had to fire him. Then he started threatening me, trying to get more money. I told him to fuck off. Then he goes to the police and says, “The gringos are growing marijuana on my parent’s land!”
CC: What an asshole!
They play for keeps down there. But I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. I mean, it was hemp, right?
I started to get worried when the DEA comes in and says “the police have questions and we will help translate for you, to make sure they understand what you are doing, because the Nicaraguan narcotics officers are so stupid they think that hemp is marijuana and vice versa.”
But as far as we can tell, the DEA helped get me busted.
CC: You trusted the DEA?
No, but what was I going to do? I am in a foreign country and we are working hard to get our harvest in, paying good wages to 50 local people who are happy to have jobs, and I am scared.
Then my lawyer calls around Christmas and says, “Paul, you’re fucked. On TV, they are saying you are a dope dealer. You have to leave.” We tried to get my money and my passport so I could get out of there, but men with machine guns came and ripped me right out of my car and took me to this terrible prison. I thought I would be shot. I thought my life was ending right there.
CC: Sometimes you wished it had?
Yeah, because that prison was unbelievable. It was a place where nightmares are designed and tested.
I was in the cell with some poor US guy from California who was in for cocaine smuggling. We were robbed at knifepoint, in the prison. I was interrogated for hours by these people and didn’t understand a word they said. I had no lawyers or any allies at first, and then they’d take me in my underwear in front of some 27-year-old female judge who looked at me with disgust and said “You’re going to prison for a long time.”‘
CC: Nobody helped you? Not even your Hemp Agro partners?
They couldn’t set foot in the country or they’d be arrested. Don Wirtshafter, whom I didn’t even know, came down, bless his heart.
You know, I hear about all the shit he’s going through in the states, and all I can say is that if the people who are criticizing him in those organizations had ever done half what he did to help this cause or help a person in jail for hemp, well maybe they’d have the right to talk about him. Because he came down there and right into this miserable prison, where there is no access to a telephone and the rats are like cats and the guards are corrupt. Into a judicial system where the normal rules of due process are not even heard of.
He came to see me, which was a big morale boost for me. He told them straight up that Paul Wylie is innocent and the world is watching what you are doing to him. He helped save my life in those critical early months.
This turned into a big case, with massive media coverage ? all biased. They’d say: “Canadian drug dealer in prison.” There were no Nicaraguan attorneys for me. I’d been charged with all kinds of garbage, such as selling a controlled substance and cultivating a pyschotropic substance. I was looking at 30 years in prison. And we are all the way into sentencing, and I still had not had a chance to say anything on my own behalf. The only thing they allowed me to say was, “Whatever you are saying and doing, I want to appeal!”
CC: It really was a nightmare.
Prison always sucks, but this place really sucked. If it hadn’t been for my girlfriend, Yvonne Lopez, who brought me food and medicine and kept the guards interested in me staying alive, I’d be dead. The guards threatened her and harassed her, but she hung in there and helped me anyway. I needed medical care because my gall bladder went bad, but the health standards are so poor down there that people have hangnail surgery and die from infection.
I lost so much weight in prison. You have to buy your own bowl and spoon. If you don’t have the money for that, you eat out of a plastic bucket. They’d give you half a cup of rice with rocks thrown in, per day, along with chicken heads and feet, and god knows what else.
Most of the other prisoners were in there for murder. They had guns and knives. You had to have killed people to be in there, unless you were a Canadian or American caught on a dope charge. And the only way out, usually, is in a body bag.
There’s a lot of homosexual rape. I had to work out all the time and just stay awake, because I was not about to end up a victim of all this. Nobody could believe I was in there for growing a plant. Even the murderers complained to the guards on my behalf.
CC: Our magazine called Canadian government officials. They told us the Canadian ambassador was making sure you were OK.
What a load of rubbish. He came to the prison a couple of times, and he sent a representative, but basically all they did was ask the Nicaraguan official if things were OK, and then they would take the official’s word for it. In the meantime, I was fighting for my life. They didn’t protect me the way they should have, and they know it.
CC: So how did you get out?
The Nicaraguans knew this case was crap. It also helped a lot that your magazine and some other journalists covered it. The Canadian government eventually made an effort to help me, after you called the Foreign Affairs office.
CC: One day they came and said you could go home?
No, they played with my head. I was waiting for judges to sign my release order, but one judge would be in Miami going shopping, or another would be getting liposuction and was unavailable. So four times they told me I was to be released, and then the day comes and they tell me I am not going anywhere.
Finally, on December 1, 1999, they took me out. We had to go through a jungle and across some water, at night, to get to Costa Rica. Then I came home to Canada.
CC: How has this affected you?
I am still trying to make sense of it all. I am writing a book. I am suing the Nicaraguan government. They stole our machinery, our crop, our payroll. They stole a year of my life from me. They owe us millions of dollars. My son might be alive if they hadn’t done this to me. I can’t sleep at night. I feel like I may never be healthy again.
The thing that gets me, you know, is that it was all because of a plant.
? Paul Wylie: 23 Kensington St, Guelph, Ontario, N1E 3P3; [email protected]