A self-described advocate for legalizing marijuana for medical purposes has been arrested along with two passengers in the vehicle she was driving and all three have been charged in Pittsburg County District Court with committing a felony marijuana offense.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol arrested driver Regina Nelson, 54, who listed a Boulder, Colorado address, along with Bryan Elliott Laufenbert, 24, of Katy, Texas, and Michael Browning, of Boulder, during a Feb. 18 traffic stop south of McAlester.

Nelson, Laufenbert, and Browning have been jointly charged in Pittsburg County District Court with a felony count of unlawful possession of a controlled drug, marijuana, with intent to distribute. The three were also charged with a misdemeanor count of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia for allegedly possessing smoking pipes, while Nelson also faces a misdemeanor charge of driving with her Colorado drivers license cancelled/suspended or revoked.

The three were arrested and transported to the Pittsburg County Jail following the Sunday traffic stop by OHP Trooper Ashby Sutherland along the Indian Nation Turnpike. Sutherland said in an affidavit filed in the case that he intended to write a warning citation for a traffic offense, when he found Nelson had a suspended drivers license and he detected the odor of marijuana.

All three were later released on $5,000 bond, which was posted after they were arrested and transported to the Pittsburg County Jail.

Nelson was purportedly on her way to speak at a Tulsa event when she was arrested in Pittsburg County. She’s the author of several books, including “Theorist-at-Large: One Woman’s Ambiguous Journey into Medical Cannabis,” “The Medical Cannabis Recommendation: An Integral Exploration of Doctor-Patient Experiences” and “The eCS Therapy Companion Guide.”

She was also a speaker on “The Science of Cannabis” at the 2015 American Humanist Conference held in Denver.

Sutherland said in an affidavit filed in the case that Nelson told him after the traffic stop that she is a writer who travels the country to advocate for the legalization of marijuana and that she was on her way to Tulsa to speak on the issue.

During an initial court appearance on Tuesday at the Pittsburg County Courthouse, the three defendants in the case pleaded innocent to the charges filed against them. Special District Judge Mindy Beare set a preliminary hearing conference, when a preliminary hearing is expected to be scheduled, for 8:30 a.m. on March 23.

McAlester attorney Brecken Wagner is the defense attorney for all three. He said Laufenbert is Nelson’s son and Browning is a publishing colleague of hers.

“She categorically denies these charges against her, that she was in possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute,” Wagner said Wednesday. He said the other two defendants also deny the charges.

“She’s going to two presentations this week, one in Tulsa and one in Oklahoma City,” Wagner said. He said he expects Nelson to speak at both presentations about her arrest in Pittsburg County.

Wagner contends that Nelson was stopped because she was driving a vehicle with Colorado license plates.

“My client experienced what many people experience for having the audacity for driving with an out-of-state plate,” Wagner said. “They tend to get pulled over and searched and harassed.”

District 18 First Assistant District Attorney Adam Scharn, who is prosecuting the case, referred to the probable cause affidavit filed in the case.

“The probable cause affidavit shows the trooper was making a stop for failure to signal,” Scharn said. He said case law from the U.S. Supreme Court states “If the officer has undisputed probable cause a violation occurred, he can stop a car.”

Scharn said case law says that the state where the license plates originated is not relevant.

An affidavit filed by Sutherland states he was working U.S. Highway 69 near the turnpike on Sunday afternoon when he observed a white SUV traveling northbound. The driver failed to properly signal the intention to change lanes when entering the on-ramp of the turnpike, he said.

Sutherland pulled the driver over on the turnpike north of the highway. Sutherland identified Nelson as the driver. He said in the affidavit he asked her to exit the vehicle and take a seat in his patrol car while he wrote her a warning ticket.

During a drivers license check, Ashby found Nelson’s drivers license was suspended in Colorado. Ashby said he showed Nelson the confirmation of the suspended license and he said she stated she believed was from an issue she had with a previous citation. He then found the rental car Nelson was driving should have already been returned, but Nelson told him she had requested a last-minute extension, according to the affidavit.

Sutherland said in the affidavit that Nelson appeared nervous and kept moving her hands and he said he could detect the smell of marijuana.

“Nelson stated she had recently walked through a ‘grow house,’” Ashby said in the affidavit. “Nelson stated she does not believe there to be any marijuana in the vehicle and she said she tries not to bring anything out of Colorado.”

Sutherland said he spoke with Laufenbert, identified as the back seat passenger, and asked him about the use of marijuana. Sutherland said Laufenbert pulled a green glass smoking device from a tan bag between Laufenbert’s feet. Sutherland said he could smell the strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. The trooper said he had the two men exit the vehicle while he conducted a probable cause search.

While patting down Browning, the trooper located a small box containing four rolled cigarettes and a green leafy substance, according to allegations in the affidavit.

Sutherland said the tan bag that had been between Laufenbert’s feet was found to contain 11 green and black plastic containers with a green leafy substance, a white container with oil capsules, herbal hand cream and edible peanut butter. The trooper said he also found a small green/yellow smoking device in the middle console.

A green purse in the drivers seat contained a rolled cigarette with a green leafy substance, and green oil capsules, according to allegations in the affidavit.

In the back of the vehicle, Sutherland alleged that he found a digital scale in a black backpack, white baggies containing a green leafy substance and additional glass smoking devices. A large silver suitcase held three large vacuum-sealed baggies containing a green leafy substance, the affidavit alleges.

Sutherland said he read the three their Miranda rights. He said in the affidavit that Browning stated he recently smoked marijuana and took ownership of the three large baggies of marijuana from the silver suitcase. Browning stated he does not sell marijuana but does share and distribute the marijuana freely to whoever needs it or asks for it, Sutherland alleged in the affidavit.

Nelson stated she did not know about the large bags of marijuana, but stated they smoked marijuana recently in Dallas, Sutherland also alleged in the affidavit.

“Nelson stated most of the products in the vehicle are non-herbal-based oils that are home remedies,” Sutherland continued. “Nelson says she freely shares marijuana with whomever is in need and stated she has a valid medical card from Colorado,” the officer alleged in the affidavit.

Laufenbert requested the presence of an attorney before making a statement, according to Sutherland.

Wagner, the defense attorney for all three defendants, is planning a vigorous defense.

“I absolutely will be filing motions regarding the constitutionality of the stop and search,” Wagner said Wednesday.

Referring to other cases, Wagner maintained that felony drug distribution charges are being filed in what should be misdemeanor possession offenses at most.

“Law enforcement and the DA are trying to subvert the will of Oklahoma voters,” Wagner said.

The last state question that attempted to legalize medical marijuana in the state failed, but Wagner said he was referring to State Questions 780 and 781. State Question 780 passed with 58 percent of the vote in 2016 and made drug possession a misdemeanor.

Scharn said that the decision by the district attorney’s office to file one charge or the other is based on probable cause.

“We look for things like scales and empty sandwich baggies and weight amounts,” Scharn said. He said he will only charge someone with intent to distribute if he thinks there’s an intent and he believes he can prove it.

Conviction of unlawful possession of a controlled drug with intent to distribute in Oklahoma is punishable by from two years to life in prison, a fine of up to $20,000, or both the fine and a prison term, according to documents filed in the case.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana advocates are ready to try again.

In response to a petition, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has set a June 26 election date for State Question 788. If the measure passes, it’s set to allow physicians to recommend patients who are 18 or older for a state-issued license for medical marijuana use, including the legal possession of up to three ounces of marijuana as well as six mature plants and six seedlings.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

Contact James Beaty by email at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

James Beaty is senior editor at the McAlester News-Capital

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