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.

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.'")

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.

"We have abided by the law hardcore because, as a hemp company, we know we're going to be looked at and held accountable for our actions," she says.

Ice-cream maker Agua is optimistic that justice will prevail: "We're gonna win because we're not going to go away. We know that what we're doing is right. It's right for the planet, it's right for business, and it's right for farmers."

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