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Hemp Takes a Hit

The feds just might drive this growing industry out of its head.

Five years ago, vocal hemp supporters Kathleen Chippi and David Almquist put their money where their mouths were by opening the Boulder Hemp Company. The pair's activism by way of commerce has since produced a line of cookies, snacks and baking mixes made with hemp flour, which they grind from hemp seeds shipped in from around the globe. In March the company went national with four flavors of Heavenly Hemp Tortilla Chips. Made with 30 percent hemp flour, the chips are a big hit in stores around the country, including Alfalfa's and Wild Oats.

But Chippi and Almquist's struggle to meet consumer demand has been nothing compared to their battle with more formidable foes: the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the nation's "drug czar," retired four-star Army general Barry McCaffrey. This coalition has deemed that sterilized industrial-hemp seeds -- which have been legally shipped into the United States for decades -- are a threat to public safety. In early January, McCaffrey, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, implemented a zero-tolerance policy for trace amounts of THC in hemp seeds.

The stance is rocking the burgeoning U.S. hemp trade, and the grain that keeps the Boulder Hemp Company rolling is in jeopardy. Chippi and Almquist now wonder if the five years and half a million dollars they invested in their venture may soon go up in a cloud of THC-free smoke.

"How in the hell can the DEA do this?" Chippi asks. "Since when did they start making federal policy? How would the farmers feel if all a sudden the DEA decided corn was illegal?"

Das Agua has a similar question. His Boulder-based Original Sources was the nation's first commercial processor of hemp seeds for hemp oil, and he's been a leader in the hemp trade since 1991. Agua has also turned activism (he once drove a tractor powered by hemp fuel around the State Capitol) into a thriving little operation that makes a brand of ice cream called Hemp I Scream! from hemp-seed milk. He calls it his "golden goose," but the business may lay an egg if the current situation continues.

"Every attorney and legislator I've talked to on this is appalled by the DEA action," Agua says.

The buzz-kill began last August when a shipment of sterilized Canadian hemp seeds (U.S. law requires imported hemp seeds to be sterile -- unable to germinate) was seized at a U.S. Customs Service checkpoint in Detroit. Why? The seeds contained .00148 percent THC from plant residue that sometimes clings to the processed seeds. (The hulls of these seeds also contain a small amount of THC that is typically removed in processing.) But these small amounts are nothing new in industrial-hemp products and have been permitted in the United States for years. In fact, hemp seeds have been a staple in birdseed since the 1930s.

Canada's Kenex Company, which had shipped the seeds, was threatened by the DEA with the loss of the truckload and fines of several hundred thousand dollars. It was also asked to retrieve a number of other shipments already in the United States. None of this made sense to Kenex founder Jean Kaprise. His company is a rising star in Canada's growing industrial-hemp industry, a trade that's legal in more than thirty countries, including every G-8 nation except the United States. Kaprise says his company had had no trouble with similar shipments in the past.

And the amount of THC in the seized shipment was hardly a threat to public safety. "A person would have to consume 2,500 pounds of the seed to get any effect, and you'd have to do that in the same amount of time that you'd smoke a joint. It would be physically impossible," Kaprise says, adding that he's never stoked a spliff in his life.

After sitting on the seeds for a few months, Customs changed its mind. In November the agency released the product to Kenex and dropped all charges. In fact, Customs then issued new guidelines for THC, actually increasing the accepted level from .1 percent to .3 percent. Hemp producers assumed the status quo had returned.

But on January 5, McCaffrey's ONDCP ordered DEA and Customs to revoke the .3 percent standard and embrace a zero-tolerance position. Hemp shipments with any amount of THC were now subject to seizure.

Only in recent history has the hemp plant -- cannabis sativa -- been the target of such legal scrutiny. Hemp historians say that for thousands of years, the plant has been deemed a wonder crop by ancient civilizations. Cultures old and new have used the seeds in food and the hemp stalk in fabric, building materials and paper. The sails and ropes used by Christopher Columbus were made of hemp, and George Washington touted hemp as a miracle crop for early American farmers. The first drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were inked on hemp paper. Along the way, of course, many people got stoned on cannabis.

When high-THC hemp found favor for its psychoactive properties in the early 1900s, images of addled stoners cast a shadow over industrial cannabis. In the 1930s, Randolph Hearst's yellow presses and the U.S. government branded cannabis a tool of the underground and undesirables. In 1937, marijuana became illegal, and the U.S. hemp trade was cooked.

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