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The war against hemp (continued)

BY NINA WILLDORF

but NONE of the dea documents addresses the crux of the case: can you get high from eating hemp-food products? The level of THC in hempseed is reportedly so low that, as one hemp advocate huffs, "the products donít have a high enough concentration of THC to intoxicate an ant, let alone a human being."

Says attorney Michael Cutler, "You can eat hemp pretzels till you explode, and you wonít get high. It ainít there. You canít stack it up and get it in there. What you have in there cannot be metabolized into something thatís psychoactive. Thereís really no scientific dispute about that."

Nutritionist Sass concurs: "I havenít seen any research to show that the psychoactive effects of using marijuana plants as a drug would have the same effects as eating [hemp foods]. Iíve never had anyone tell me they would eat it for that reason. Everyone Iíve ever talked to who is or who has considered eating hemp is doing it because they think itís healthy." Sass pauses, laughing. "And I work at a university."

Canadaís Hempola even tried an experiment to see whether eating enough hemp-food products could possibly turn a test positive. In the test, the countryís top-ranking masters triathlete ingested hempseed oil at six times the typical consumption rate for a series of days. "He went in for a drug test," explains Hempolaís founder and president Greg Herriott, "and he came out negative."

Itís been illegal to grow hemp in the US since the 1950s, so most hempseed found in this country is imported from Canada and follows that countryís strict Health Canada Protocol guidelines: a plant must contain no more than three-tenths of one percent THC, or five parts per million (ppm) for hemp oil and 1.5 ppm for shelled hempseeds.

Here in the US, the DEA claims that hemp foods containing zero percent THC are perfectly legal under the new rule. But insiders argue thatís impossible, because hemp products with zero percent THC donít exist. According to them, you can always find trace amounts if you look hard enough. But companies currently selling hemp-food products have tested below the current THC-detection standards, which are set by the Canadian government.

In fact, Richard Rose has pitted his HempNut Inc., based in Santa Rosa, California, against its competitors and cozied up to the DEA by claiming its products actually do contain zero percent THC. "Cleaning THC off of hemp seed is easy, doable," he says. "Just clean off the THC." But even Rose worries that appealing the DEAís ruling could pave the way for renegotiating testing standards, which could allow the DEA to lower the bar to, say, five parts per billion. "This ban was a get-out-of-jail-free card for 90 percent of the industry," he says.

Others in the hemp industry associated with HIA arenít pleased with Roseís public swagger. In retaliation, they tested his products for THC, lowering the bar just a wee bit. "HempNut has trace THC in there, and we found it using marginally stronger detection protocols," says the HIAís Bronner. And that illustrates the industryís ultimate point: "Itís absolutely impossible to get all the THC off the seed," Bronner says. "You can spend an arbitrary amount of money to clean [the seeds], but itís only going to go out so many zeros. Youíre always going to have some. Youíll always be able to see it if you look far enough down."

Zero percent THC, almost zero percent ó whatís the biggie? Itís a big deal when you consider that in between zero and teensy amounts of the stuff is where the DEA has found a window to prosecute. It doesnít matter that you canít get high from trace amounts of THC; the fact that the chemical is in there at all has allowed the agency to classify the food product as a toxic substance.

Bronnerís concerned that Roseís naysaying may invalidate the industryís primary legal recourse. "We have to stand and fight now. Everyone in the industry realizes that except for this one company."

Whatever the courtís decision ó which is expected to come down within six to nine months ó the hemp-food industry has already taken a hit. Somewhere in the midst of all the legalese, the slew of articles in papers across the country, and the HIAís urgent appeals for action, consumers are confused, the industry is splintering, and small businesses are hurting.

Natural-food chain Whole Foods (known locally as Bread & Circus) removed all hemp-food products from its shelves in February, for example, when its suppliers were unable to produce documentation that their products were completely THC-free. In mid March, after the stay was granted, the chain restocked the items.

As a result of actions like these, hemp companies are reporting plummeting sales. "My sales are down 75 to 80 percent across the country," says HempNutís Rose. "Iíve been managing phone calls from Topeka, Kansas, saying, ĎWhere do I send these hemp foods? Theyíre illegal. I donít want the DEA to come in and raid me!í Theyíre actually afraid. Theyíre whipped into a tizzy." Adds Hempolaís Herriott, "Consumers are fearful of purchasing hemp-food products, especially if theyíre obligated to have drug testing at work."

But some other companies are reporting an uptick from the unexpected publicity. "Weíve picked up some new customers," says Nutivaís Roulac. "Some of our current retailers are seeing a rush from consumers to pick it up."

Rose, however, claims any and all damage is irreparable. "Once you destroy the industry, it doesnít matter what the DEA does. People misreading the rule have created the very thing the DEA was trying to do."

Adds Ohio Hemperyís Wirthshafter, "Itís discouraging to me because the government, just by threatening this a year ago, cut out our market. These companies got scared away from hemp. This may come back in a year or so, when we finish these court battles, but it was a real setback for my business and my industry."

But hemp appreciators arenít giving up any time soon: theyíll fight to the end for their super herb. "Hempís one of those things, once you get involved in it, itís like jumping into a black hole," says Nutivaís Roulac. "The government is very intimidated by hemp. It is their mission to destroy the entire hemp industry. But the genie has already jumped out of the bottle. The more they try to stop it, the more ridiculous they look."

Nina Willdorf can be reached at nwilldorf@phx.com

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Issue Date: April 4 - 11, 2002
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