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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Don't Hemp Me In

Hands off those hemp chips--the DEA has declared them illegal

By Rebecca Patt

FROZEN WAFFLES are the latest targets of the War on Drugs.

This news may come as a surprise to consumers, unless of course they've read pages 51,539 through 51,544 in the Federal Register.

The Drug Enforcement Agency now views a variety of hemp food products containing trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinols--or THC--as Schedule I narcotics: in other words the same as heroin, under the Controlled Substances Act.

The newly outlawed foods are all commonly available at local health food stores and include veggie burgers, pretzels, salad oil, beer, cheese, chips, soda--in short, any food that contains hemp seed as an ingredient.

The official hatchet fell on Oct. 9, 2001, when the DEA announced that "anyone who has purchased a food or beverage product that contains THC has 120 days (until Feb. 6, 2002) to dispose of the product without penalty under federal law."

The DEA claims that THC causes a "psychoactive effect or 'high.'" But while the cannabis varieties used for producing reefer can have as much as 30 percent THC, hemp food products are made from industrial hemp that generally has less than 1 percent THC--not nearly enough to cause a high.

Those waffles may contain trace amounts of THC because "there's no such thing as a zero in nature," says John Roulac, president of Nutiva, a Sebastopol manufacturer of hemp bars, chips and seeds. "For instance, orange juice has minute traces of alcohol, but we don't ban orange juice for children. There's also no such thing as zero arsenic in water."

Roulac says that smoking the marijuana portion of the industrial hemp plant results in a headache, not a high. He also notes that hemp used for food is subject to a cleansing process and that the amount of THC remaining afterward is infinitesimal, no more than say, the amount of opiates in a poppy seed bagel. Unlike the Canadian government, the United States has no official system for measuring levels of THC in foods. However, according to Canadian protocol, the hemp foods such as those manufactured by Nutiva contain no THC.

Just as poppy seeds are exempt from laws governing heroin, Congress exempted hemp products from substance abuse laws when it made marijuana illegal in 1937. However, the DEA announced last October what is known as its "interpretive rule" in regards to hemp, saying that the agency is interpreting and enforcing an existing rule and therefore free from formal rule-making procedures. Through this interpretation, nonfood items such as shampoo, lotions, twine and clothing can remain on the market--at least for now.

So, should consumers thaw out their waffles and dump the hemp-seed salad dressing down the drain, for fear of a DEA-initiated food raid?

DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite was vague about how the agency would enforce the rule and what the penalties might be, deferring all questions to the DEA's website instead.

"As a law enforcement organization, we never talk about how we enforce things. We would never discuss our plans," she said.

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and chairman of the Hemp Industries Association's food and oil committee, was more forthcoming.

He called the ruling "drug war paranoia," adding that it exhibited "an unbelievable arrogance on the DEA's part that they can override congressional exemption."

But for many government officials, the relationship between hemp food products and pot is troubling. According to DEA boss Asa Hutchinson, a former GOP congressman from Arkansas, "Many Americans do not know that hemp and marijuana are both parts of the same plant and that hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana."

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz) is crooning the same tune as pretzel prohibitor Hutchinson. Farr said he too is opposed to all hemp food, including pretzels and soda, "since they all contain a small amount of THC and since THC is an illegal drug."

Hip Hemp Hooray

Santa Cruz shoppers proved to have a different take than their appointed and elected officials.

"There is a distinction between hemp and marijuana," said Food Bin shopper David Bolam recently as he browsed the store's dairy case. "It's amazing to me that a regulatory body would not be clear on that distinction. I can only guess what their ulterior motives might be."

"Ludicrous," said shopper Mariposa Berstein, perusing Food Bin's produce aisle. "I think it's crazy. I'm a licensed acupuncturist and hemp seeds have been in our pharmacopoeia for thousands of years."

"It's absurd," agreed Herby Edwards Jr., another Food Bin patron. "The bottom line is that hemp could feed and clothe the world."

The Food Bin on Mission Street stocks hemp products including Hempola Not-So-Traditional Caesar Salad dressing. Dario Dickinson, the store's general manager, maintains that the only risk that products like hemp seed pretzels have--provided you chew them more carefully than George W. did recently--is that you might turn into a health-food junkie.

"We believe strongly that the hemp seed is one of nature's most important nutritional gifts to humans. The hemp seed is high in Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fatty acids," Dickinson said. "We are extremely disappointed with the government ruling. We think it's completely outrageous to take this food away from the people."

According to nutrition guru and popular author Dr. Andrew Weil, hemp oil's essential fatty acids boost the immune system, reduce the risk of heart attacks, promote healthy skin, hair and nails, and are useful in treating arthritis and other inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Advocates also say that hemp is second only to soybeans as a complete protein yet is more easily digestible than soy.

However healthy hemp may be, the Family Values Council, an ultra-conservative D.C.-based advocacy group, believes the products send an unhealthy, pro-drug message to children and indicate a trend toward drug legalization. The FVC, along with some who claim that ingesting hemp food products has caused them to test positive for drugs, impelled the DEA's mandate. But Roulac doesn't think that the ban has any connection with "the usual suspects" in Big Business who might feel threatened by the growth of industrial hemp.

"The only buzz I get from eating hemp products is a political uplift," said Bob Lamonica, producer of Santa Cruz's Hemp Expo and an avid muncher of hemp chips. "It's a patent absurdity and an utter shame that this has gotten this far just as hemp foods were starting to show shelf space."

Hemp foods, currently a $5 million a year industry, have the potential to become the next biggest things since soy milk and tofu, Roulac said.

Food Fight

New Leaf Community Markets, Santa Cruz's largest health food store chain, did about $13,000 in sales in 2001 of hemp oil supplement and munchies like cookies, bars and chips, according to pricing coordinator Michael Murray. Its bestselling hemp item is Nature's Path Hemp Plus Granola.

Murray said that New Leaf's distributor, Mountain Peoples Warehouse, has already started to remove the items from its catalog and pull products from the shelves.

Hemp food manufacturers and retailers say the DEA did not contact them about the policy change.

"This was under the radar," said Sarah Miles, New Leaf's marketing director. "As a retailer, I'm not very well informed about this, and the more I learn the more confused I get. We certainly didn't get a letter from the DEA or anyone else telling us not to carry hemp products."

Miles said the lack of information was frustrating for New Leaf because it likes to think of itself as a place where customers can go to educate themselves about health food issues. She said the store is scrambling for information to pass on to confused shoppers searching in vain for items like Spectrum hemp seed oil supplement.

At Staff of Life on Water Street, general manager Rich Seibert said his store just stocked up on items such as Nutiva's ground hemp seeds and HempNut's butter (an alternative peanut butter) and hemp vegan cheese.

"Since they haven't made it clear to us what the law is, we are going to continue to sell them," said Seibert.

Roulac tried to look on the bright side.

"In a kind of a bizarre way the DEA is helping our industry," he said, citing how the media coverage of the conflict has increased awareness about hemp. "It's turning out to be a blessing of the harassment."

"This will really define whether there is a demand for hemp products or not," said Miles. "If there isn't, they will just disappear."

Meanwhile, Dr. Bronner's deep sudsy pockets are providing much of the funding for the hemp industry's legal battle against the DEA. The Hemp Industries Association has filed a lawsuit in the 9th District Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

And Kenex Ltd. of Canada, the largest exporter of hemp seeds to the United States, is seeking $20 million in compensation under the North America Free Trade Agreement due to the DEA's action.

"If they lose they'll be in really deep shit if they go around seizing products," said Bronner. "Certainly as far as various crises for real drug abuse going on, it's amazing the DEA is devoting funds and resources to outlawing hemp seed and oil."


For information about the DEA's regulations governing hemp food products, visit www.usdoj.gov:80/dea/advisories/pa100901.html.

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From the February 6-13, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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