Hemp Takes a Hit

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

Laura Kriho, head of the Colorado Hemp Initiative Project, is working with national pro-hemp groups to help return it to its legal status. She and her peers tout the agricultural wonders of the cannabis plant, a low-maintenance, high-yield grass that can grow to fifteen feet without the eco-unfriendly practices of many crops; COHIP also helped lead the failed campaigns to legalize hemp farming in Colorado in 1995, '96 and '97.

Kriho admits that the movement suffers from the tie-dye-and-patchouli-oil stoner image, but she says that perception is no longer accurate. "People who think that way should have gone down to the Colorado Farm Bureau convention, like I did, where they voted in support of industrial hemp a couple years ago. One guy there told me they wanted to have pot smokers taken out and shot." But, she adds, "if it wasn't for the pot-smoking hippies, nobody would even know what industrial hemp is to this day."

(Agua points out that no self-respecting pot smoker would dare pinch from an industrial-hemp field or load a friend's bowl with the factory-grade smoke: "People would say, 'This is bunk. You're not invited back to my party if you bring something this awful again.'")

I'm me-e-e-lting: Das Agua's Boulder ice cream business relies on imported hemp seeds.
David Rehor
I'm me-e-e-lting: Das Agua's Boulder ice cream business relies on imported hemp seeds.

That the industry is now in the crosshairs of the drug czar is especially puzzling considering that on December 14, 1999, the first U.S. hemp crop was planted in Hawaii, with approval from the DEA. U.S. Senator Cynthia Thielen led the charge for approval of Hawaii's hemp crop, which she sees as a valuable replacement for her state's suffering sugarcane industry. She has protested McCaffrey's actions and asked the U.S. Attorney General's Office to overturn his edict. "I believe Mr. McCaffrey is misguided and is causing economic harm to legitimate U.S. and foreign companies," she wrote in a January 14 missive to Janet Reno. "Unfortunately, when he attacks industrial hemp as a 'drug,' he loses credibility with respected citizens and government officials."

DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite says her office is merely enforcing the policy handed down by McCaffrey. The change came about when hemp seeds "went from birdseed to human consumption," she says. "That's when people started thinking about this seriously." There is still a provision that allows companies to import hemp seeds that aren't THC-free if they register with the DEA. (Waite knows of no companies that have done this, however, and hemp people say the last such firm closed a year ago, after it was buried in red tape.) To those unhappy with the DEA's enforcement efforts, she says, "You don't pick the bone with the people enforcing the law. You go to the people who make the law."

Some hemp-industry people speculate that McCaffrey may be worried about another growing industry: urine testing. "I think the government is concerned that people who eat hemp foods will have a law-abiding alibi if they ever test positive for THC," Agua says. He may be correct. According to Bob Weiner, a spokesman for McCaffrey, Americans snacking on hemp tortilla chips "really would make drug testing difficult. One of the main points our director made is that hemp foods are a threat to drug testing." Weiner says the ONDCP wants the DEA and U.S. Customs to offer scientific proof that hemp foods are not a threat to "enforcement, drug testing, drug policy or health."

He adds that Customs officials had no right to determine what amount of THC was acceptable. "There was no rational, scientific basis for the numbers in their policy," he says. The agencies are now discussing the situation, but Weiner has no idea when or if the zero-tolerance stance will be softened.

Candy Penn of the Hemp Industries Association says the urinalysis fear is unfounded. "The problem is with the testing process," she says. "Everyone knows there are trace amounts of THC on hemp seeds, but it's not a problem. You eat poppy seeds on your bagel, but no one's accusing you of using heroin." Chippi adds that the Boulder Hemp Company has conducted urinalysis tests on its tortilla-chip customers and has found no trace of THC.

Since the January policy shift, Kaprise says his company has shipped a small amount of product into the United States without any trouble. But he's hardly confident this good fortune will last.

"In August I was a criminal. In December I was not. In January I'm illegal again. It's a tough way to do business," he says, adding that Kenex is now taking extra measures to get its seed as THC-free as possible.

In the meantime, Boulder Hemp is down to its last ton of seeds and flour, which will last about a month. "Our concern," Chippi says, "is that the companies in Canada can't guarantee zero-percent THC. And nobody is ordering any seed because they're illegal again."

She also suspects that the strange beeps that now interrupt her phone conversations are evidence of DEA wiretaps and says her company has been receiving untraceable hang-up calls. She worries that DEA agents will arrive at her door and seize her business. She recently flew to Washington, D.C., to get help from her elected officials, and says she met with staffers in the offices of Representative Mark Udall and Senators Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell. The staffers were sympathetic to her plight and contacted the DEA on her behalf, she says, but none have offered any information that would give her and her partner peace of mind.

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