HUMANS HAVE made use of hemp plants for 10,000 years. In fact, its devotees are fond of throwing historical information at the government, such as the claim that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. And they tirelessly point out that while marijuana and hemp are both classified as Cannabis sativa, the first is bred for maximum THC content, and the second is bred for maximum fiber content.
Industrial hemp plants, a tall, stalk-like variety, are bred for exceptionally low THC content, and can be harvested either for their seeds (also known as nuts) or their oil. The seedís outer shell contains trace amounts of THC, which may brush against the nut, but the psychochemical component can be removed with dabs of alcohol or the whisk of a brush, says Richard Rose, founder of hempseed-food maker HempNut Inc. After itís been extracted, the seed can be turned into anything from crunchy nuts and pretzels to salad oil. And according to the HIA, the small nuts are gaining steam: estimated retail sales for hemp-food and body-care products in the US exceeded $25 million in 2000, up from less than $1 million in the early í90s.
Sure enough, at the Hempest outlet in Northampton, about a dozen people come in every day to enjoy a cup of hempseed coffee. Ed Dodge, a member of the Massachusetts Green Party and a hemp aficionado, says he also eats hemp daily. He mentions the Galaxy Restaurant in New York. "They have a whole hemp-food menu. Twenty different hempseed dishes. Theyíve got the best veggie burger Iíve eaten in my entire life!"
Enthusiasts also tout the hempseedís health benefits, derived from an optimal mix of essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 (those found in fish and wheat germ, for example), as well as its high protein content. Alternative-health expert Andrew Weil, author of the Self Healing newsletter, is a fan of hemp-food products, writing that "hemp oil contains more essential fatty acids than flax and actually tastes good. It is nutty and free from the objectionable undertones of flax oil. I use it on salads, baked potatoes, and other foods."
Cynthia Sass, a nutritionist referred by the American Dietetic Association and a professor at the University of South Florida, adds that "hempseed also is a good source of vitamin E. Itís real high in protein. Hemp is equivalent to soy beans in its protein content, which is really good." Still, she cautions that while the seed and oil have a good "nutritional profile," there arenít any studies that indicate whether or not the vitamin E, protein, and essential fatty acids actually offer health benefits when ingested via the plant. "There hasnít been any research done in which doctors gave people hemp and then followed them to see whether their blood pressure or something else improved. So thereís no connection between consumption and health benefits. Even though it has some positive nutrients in it, we need to look for some more research and continue to consume other nutrients. Thereís no one super food that everyone needs to be eating."
Strong as the hemp-food market may be, itís not the high-powered arm of the hemp industry. Apparently, one can fashion more than 25,000 products out of the stuff, including hammocks, magazines, hacky sacks, frisbees, embroidery thread, candles, coffee filters, teddy bears, and, of course, lots and lots of elastic-waisted, loose-fitting hemp clothes.
As the law currently stands, all that remains legal even if the DEAís rule isnít overturned. But industry insiders are nervous that they may be headed down a slippery slope. First food, then lip balm, then body lotion, they fear ó and then the whole shebang. So companies other than those that manufacture hemp food have gotten involved. "The DEA is just picking on the food industry now," says Roulac. "[But] the body-care industry is next."
some surmise the DEA has bolstered its case against hemp because ingested hemp oil can cause a false-positive result on drug tests. In 1997, the Journal of Analytical Toxicology published a study showing that a person who ingested 135 milliliters of hempseed oil twice a day for four days tested positive for marijuana in the blood. In January 2000, the Air Force banned the oil after a soldier tested positive for drug use ó and traced it back to a hempseed dietary supplement. It may be that government officials fear drug users could blame a positive drug-test result on hempseed oil or other hemp product, rather than on an illegal substance.
But in October 2000, the Division of Forensic Toxicology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology found that "the concentration of THC in hemp-oil products has been reduced considerably since the publication of earlier studies." After volunteers ingested the products, the reportís authors claimed, "all volunteers were below positive screen and confirmation cutoffs within 48 hours after cessation of ingestion."
Subsequent studies have also thrown the false-positive fears out the window. Most recently, an environmental-consulting firm in Berkeley, California, found that THC concentrations from foods containing seeds or oil are "sufficiently low to prevent confirmed positives."
Testing aside, the question for the DEA may be why now? With a war going on, doesnít the government have better things to worry about?
"The US government has had a war against the hemp industry for a long time; this is just another round," explains Nutivaís Roulac. "They realized that everyone was distracted with domestic security, they could do things like this without much public notice," asserts Don Wirthshafter, founder of the Ohio Hempery, a hemp-product manufacturer. "The same week, they came down on medical-marijuana clubs in California and physician-assisted suicide in Oregon. They thought they could get away with it then."
More important, those in the hemp industry believe, the fact that the government sat on the issue for a year indicates that the products donít pose the critical health threat the DEA posits. "Obviously, having waited almost a year to issues these rules," court papers read, "DEA does not believe the products in question pose any threat to public health or safety, let alone an imminent threat warranting immediate placement of these products on Schedule I of the [Controlled Substances Act]."
So if itís not a health issue, whatís the problem? Some allege that the DEA has been pressured into action by the religious right. The conservative Family Research Council (FRC) issued an extensive appeal to snuff out the hemp industry in December 2000. In an article titled "Hemp Is Marijuana: Should Farmers Grow It?", Robert Maginnis, vice-president for national security and foreign affairs at the FRC, wrote, "legalizing hemp sends the wrong message about its look-alike, marijuana.... Selling hemp products is clearly about marijuana legalization."
David Bronner disagrees. And as chair of the HIAís food-and-oil committee and president of Dr. Bronnerís Magic Soaps, a personal-care company whose products contain hemp and whose packaging (also made of hemp) features religious messages, Bronner sits at an intriguing intersection of hemp advocacy and Christian morals. "Industrial hemp has a phenomenal nutritional profile," he says. "The DEA is trying to undercut the most promising growth market in the near future."