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The Demonized Seed

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As a Recreational Drug, Industrial Hemp Packs the Same Wallop as
Zucchini. So Why Does the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Continue to
Deny America This Potent Resource? Call It Reefer Madness.

On an otherwise unremarkable day nearly 30 years ago, in a San
Fernando Valley head shop, an ordinary man on LSD had an epiphany. The
one thing that could save the world, it came to him, was hemp.

Thunderbolts come cheap on LSD, but this one looked good to Jack Herer
even after his head cleared. The world needed relief from its
addiction to oil and petrochemicals. From deforestation and
malnutrition. From dirty fuels, sooty air, exhausted soils and
pesticides. The extraordinary hemp plant could solve all those
problems. Herer was sure of it. Thus began his journey as a heralding

For 12 years, Herer expanded his knowledge of hemp, burrowing deep
into U.S. government archives and writing about his discoveries in
alternative newspapers and magazines. He self-published "The Emperor
Wears No Clothes," an impassioned rant for the utilitarian virtues of
cannabis sativa, the ancient species that gives us both hemp and
marijuana, which are genetically distinct. Experts agree that in
contrast to marijuana, cannabis hemp--or industrial hemp as it is often
called--has no drug characteristics. (See sidebar on Page 14.)

Herer's book, quirky but substantive enough to be taken seriously,
inspired thousands and became an underground classic. The author has
issued 16 printings over the years, revising and updating his material
11 times. Today, Herer is widely credited with launching the modern
hemp movement, a persistent campaign by an eclectic coalition of
environmentalists, legislators, rights activists, farmers, scientists,
entrepreneurs and others to end the maligned plant's banishment and
tap its potential as a natural resource.

Despite the book's over-the-top exuberance and occasional leaps of
syllogistic fancy--or more likely because of them--it has sold 665,000
copies in seven languages. Or is it 635,000 copies in eight languages?
The prophet isn't sure as he pads across the abused gray carpet of his
two-bedroom Van Nuys apartment, a flower-child domicile to which the
benefits of even the most rudimentary housekeeping remain foreign.
Beard unkempt, hair askew, Herer matches the decor. "How can they make
the one thing that can save the world illegal?" he asks, no less
astonished by this paradox now than he was three decades ago.

Herer's question is essentially the same one hemp advocates in the
U.S. have been asking with mounting consternation for the past decade.
They are asking it now with new urgency in response to the Drug
Enforcement Agency's latest foray against hemp, an attempt since 2001
to ban all food products containing even a trace of hemp, even though
the foods are not psychoactive. The California-based Hemp Industries
Assn. and seven companies that make or sell hemp products won a
reprieve for the industry in June, when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of
Appeals ruled the DEA's efforts "procedurally invalid." But the matter
remains in litigation, and the hemp issue continues to confound

California's Legislature passed a bill on behalf of hemp not long ago
that, in its final, watered-down form, could hardly have been less
ambitious. Assembly Bill 388, approved in 2002 by wide margins in both
chambers, merely requested that the University of California assess
the economic opportunities associated with several alternative fiber
crops. But because one of the crops was cannabis hemp, then-Gov. Gray
Davis vetoed the measure, leaving California uncharacteristically
behind the curve on a progressive issue that many other states and
nations have embraced in recent years.

If all or even most of the oft-cited claims for hemp are true, the
substance may know no earthly equal among nontoxic renewable
resources. If only half the claims are true, hemp's potential as a
commercial wellspring and a salve to creeping eco-damage is still
immense. At worst it is more useful and diverse than most agricultural
crops. Yet from the 1930s through the 1980s, many countries,
influenced by U.S. policies and persuasion, banished cannabis from
their farmlands. Not just marijuana, but all cannabis--the baby, the
bath water, all of it.

Confronted with declining demand for their tobacco, farmers in
Kentucky, where hemp was the state's largest cash crop until 1915,
argue that commercial hemp could help save their farms. California
doesn't face that particular dilemma but, in theory, hemp agriculture
eventually could bestow innumerable benefits on the state, from tax
their farmers to grow hemp, one wonders what they know that the U.S.
doesn't. "I'm not going to comment on what other countries do,"
Sapienza says.

The DEA argues that the revival of hemp farming in the U.S. will
somehow increase the availability, use and public acceptance of
marijuana. Hemp activists dismiss this argument out of hand, as does
one of their most formidable allies, former CIA Director James R.
Woolsey. Hailing from the political right, Woolsey vehemently opposes
any loosening of America's marijuana laws. But in his experience, he
says, most people, once they become informed about hemp, see no
justification for America's prohibition against the crop. "They
understand that there's not been any increase in use of marijuana in,
say, Europe or Canada as a result of industrial hemp cultivation. It's
one of those issues in which there are no real substantive arguments
on the other side."

Sapienza points out, as DEA officials often do, that the agency merely
enforces the law. In truth, though, the DEA also interprets the law,
creates exemptions to it and makes judgments that determine how
statutory abstractions translate to on-the-ground realities. A case in
point is the agency's declaration in late 2001 that all edible hemp
products--cereals, health bars, sodas, salad oils and the like,
products sold in the U.S. for years--are illegal. Hundreds of retailers
were given a few months to get such items off their shelves. If a
federal court hadn't intervened, a multimillion-dollar industry would
have been wiped out by a DEA decision to reinterpret existing law. For
now, edible hemp products remain legal and commercially available in
the U.S., pending a 9th Circuit court ruling expected sometime this

Despite hemp's stigma, state legislatures in recent years have been
surprisingly bold in their willingness to address the issue. Though
Davis vetoed California's 2002 bill requesting research, in 1999 both
the state Assembly and the California Democratic Party approved
unambiguous resolutions supporting hemp commercialization. Twelve
other states have passed similar resolutions or bills. Since 1997,
North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, West Virginia and Maryland have
legalized cultivation, and in 2000, the National Conference of State
Legislatures passed a resolution urging the federal government to
clear the barriers to domestic hemp production. But entrenched federal
opposition renders all these political machinations meaningless beyond
symbolic value.

The DEA, which is within the Justice Department, justifies its
unbending posture on hemp with assertions that legal hemp agriculture
would provide camouflage for illegal pot growers. From the air or at a
distance, the agency says, industrial hemp and marijuana are virtually

"The DEA is wrong," says Indiana University professor emeritus Paul
Mahlberg, a plant cell biologist who has studied cannabis for more
than 25 years and is conducting research on 150 different strains,
both hemp and marijuana. "Hemp plants are tall, 8 to 20 feet.
Marijuana plants in the field are shorter." And cultivated hemp grows
a slender, nearly leafless lower stem, whereas marijuana strains are
bred to be "Christmas tree-like in appearance," with abundant leaves,
glands and flowers in which are stored the intoxicating THC.

Marijuana's bushiness requires far more space per plant, says John
Roulac, a compost expert and owner of the Sebastopol, Calif.,
health-food company Nutiva, which imports sterilized hemp seed from
Canada for nutrition bars. From the ground or the air, a hemp crop
looks significantly denser than a marijuana crop. "In a square yard,
you might grow one or two marijuana plants, whereas with hemp you
might have 100 plants," Roulac says.

The argument about physical appearance should be a nonissue, hemp
advocates say, given that the last place a marijuana grower would want
to locate his drug crop is in or near a hemp field. The consensus
among cannabis experts, supported by the logic of plant genetics and
field studies, is that cross-pollination would sabotage the pot
grower's efforts, causing his next generation of marijuana to be only
half as potent. This genetic convenience delights hard-line
anti-marijuana types such as Woolsey, the former CIA chief. He was
skeptical about pro-hemp arguments when he first heard them. "But then
I got into the science of it a bit, and it was quite clear to me that
not only is [hemp cultivation] a good idea, it's a major headache for
marijuana [growers]," he says with an impish laugh. If it were up to
Woolsey, tall, lush fields of industrial hemp would be greening
America, filling the sky with airborne pollen and frustrating
marijuana growers everywhere.

The DEA flatly rejects the idea that a hemp field would degrade any
marijuana in the vicinity. A spokeswoman for the agency recently
maintained that "it cannot be said with any level of certainty that a
cannabis plant of relatively low THC content will necessarily reduce
the THC content of other plants grown in close proximity."

Hemp may be absurdly intertwined with marijuana, but the DEA could ease
restrictions on hemp simply by removing marijuana from its list of most
dangerous drugs. That may sound radical to a public conditioned to believe
marijuana is as dangerous as heroin, but Mitch Earleywine, a drug addiction
expert and associate professor of clinical psychology at USC, doesn't think
so. In reviewing about 500 marijuana studies for his recent book
"Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence,"
Earleywine found little or no scientific evidence for any of the most
prominent allegations against the drug, least of all that it causes violent
or aggressive behavior, decreases motivation or acts as a gateway to harder
drugs. It is addictive, he says, but "it's nowhere near the caliber of,
say, heroin, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, any of those drugs." Should it be
a Schedule I controlled substance? "In all honesty, the idea that it has to
be scheduled at all might be up for question," he says. "Americans are just
too freaked out about [marijuana]."

One of the most persistent charges against the hemp lobby is that it's
really just a marijuana movement in disguise.

"Let's not play dumb here," says America's reigning drug czar, John P.
Walters of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "It
is no coincidence that proponents of marijuana have invested a great
deal of time and money in an effort to expand hemp cultivation. They
do this not, one presumes, from any special interest in industrial
fiber resources, but from an earnest belief that more widespread
domestic hemp cultivation will make the cultivation and distribution
of marijuana easier, and that a legal hemp industry would frustrate
law enforcement efforts against marijuana trafficking."

Unquestionably, the hemp and marijuana crowds overlap. Most
pro-marijuana people think American farmers should be able to grow
hemp, and many in the hemp movement condemn America's war on drugs and
its marijuana laws. But the government's claim that virtually everyone
pressing for hemp cultivation has a hidden agenda amounts to a sort of
psychotropic McCarthyism. Eric Steenstra represents a Hungarian hemp
textile producer and runs an Internet-based advocacy organization
called Vote Hemp. "Industrial hemp is a peripheral issue to the drug
war, but it has gotten caught up in it," he says. "It's frustrating.
You can't discount this movement as being just a bunch of stoned
hippies following the Grateful Dead."

Quips former Kentucky Gov. Louie B. Nunn: "Should we listen when Canada's
Royal Mounted Police report no problems regulating hemp, or are they also
working to legalize marijuana?"

Yes, there is Woody Harrelson, but the class photo also includes Nunn,
Ralph Nader, Hugh Downs, Ted Turner and Woolsey, who sits on the board
of directors of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, an
advocacy organization founded in 1995.

"They've tried to tie us to the marijuana movement all along, and they
can't get it done," says Erwin "Bud" Sholts, chair of the hemp
council. Sholts is a 69-year-old farmer whose career as an alternative
crop researcher for the state of Wisconsin convinced him America
should consider hemp a valuable resource, not an outlaw crop. "If the
rest of the world wants to make marijuana legal, that's fine, but
we're interested in the agriculture crop."

When Jack Herer began his quest to emancipate hemp, he just assumed
that everyone would find the essential facts about the plant's
qualities so compelling that the battle would be won in six months--two
years, tops. That was 29 years ago.

One of the many people intrigued by Herer's book was Dave West, a
Midwest plant breeder with a doctorate in breeding and genetics. His
curiosity about hemp had already been piqued by something he witnessed
in the mid-1980s as he toiled one sweltering day in a Wisconsin
cornfield. A helicopter suddenly appeared low in the sky, then hovered
over an adjacent field while several men rappelled to the ground. It
was a drug-enforcement operation going after wild marijuana. "Which,
as a plant breeder and as somebody who grew up in Wisconsin, I knew
was preposterous," West recalls. "I knew this was feral hemp and
nobody wanted it, and that's why it was growing as a weed out there
and nobody was picking it."

Since 1979, at a cost of millions of dollars annually ($13.5 million
in 2002), the DEA has orchestrated an ambitious campaign of "marijuana
eradication." The scene West observed in the cornfield was, and still
is, a common one: a marijuana eradication team eradicating not
marijuana but harmless feral hemp, often called "ditchweed." Escaped
remnants from commercial hemp harvests of long ago still grow along
railroad tracks and fence lines and in fields and culverts throughout
America's heartland. Justice Department statistics show that year
after year, as much as 98% of the "wild marijuana" the DEA pulls up is
actually ditchweed.

"Here was an agency of the government that was selling this
line"--calling ditchweed "marijuana"--"that was obviously a perversion
of reality," West says. "This is a genetic resource issue. Instead of
collecting, preserving and working with it, we're sending the DEA to
rappel down from helicopters to pull it out and destroy it wherever
they can find it."

From July 1999 until recently, West presided over a state-sanctioned,
corporate-funded quarter-acre test plot of cannabis on the Hawaiian
island of Oahu. He possessed the only DEA license to research cannabis
for industrial use. To meet DEA requirements, he fortified his site
with better security than you'd find at a typical Russian nuclear
stockpile. Ten-foot-high fencing topped with barbed wire, an alarm
siren, infrared beam perimeter. You'd think he was manufacturing
enriched plutonium.

For nearly four years West worked to develop a strain of cannabis
ideal for cultivation as industrial hemp in the United States. Funding
proved difficult given that investors and grants don't tend to find
their way to research for a crop that has been illegal in this country
for 33 years. But when he shut down the project last fall, West says,
his decision wasn't prompted so much by money woes as by the federal
government's "strong and entrenched opposition to hemp." In a written
statement he handed to DEA agents Sept. 30, the day he walked off the
property for good, he left no doubt about his feelings. "I quit in
protest," his statement said.

A few months earlier, he had begun girding himself for the unpleasant
task of eliminating the very thing his labors had created. "When I
pull the plug," he lamented with wry sarcasm, "the DEA will require
that the seed be destroyed. It is, after all a narcotic with no known
redeeming use here on this flat earth."

The DEA agents did indeed require West to destroy the seed. The
government shows no signs that it will allow industrial hemp to be
grown in the United States anytime soon.



Because they're often used interchangeably, the terms cannabis, hemp
and marijuana can be confusing. While cannabis encompasses all
varieties of the species, hemp, often called industrial hemp, has come
to mean a few dozen nonintoxicating varieties of cannabis bred and
cultivated for commercial ends: clothing, paper, food, biofuels,
biodegradable plastic, building materials, automobile parts,
insulators, paints, lubricants--the list of possibilities goes on.

Marijuana, on the other hand, refers strictly to the cannabis drug
plant, of which there exist endless varieties differentiated by the
amount of intoxicating substances they contain, notably
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Today virtually all strains of cannabis
are the product of human alteration, manipulated by scientists,
breeders and drug dealers to increase or decrease THC content and
other characteristics to suit their purposes.

Mitch Earleywine, a drug addiction expert at USC, says marijuana
typically contains a THC concentration of 2% to 5%, and some strains
have measured as much as 22% or higher. By contrast, industrial hemp
has been reduced by breeders to 0.3%, a trifle that authorities agree
produces no psychoactive effect.



If you want to apply for a license to grow commercial hemp, you must
solicit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA consistently claims
that no prohibition on hemp farming exists in this country, as if to
suggest that all one need do is file the proper paperwork and make a
reasonable case.

"We don't have any preconceived notions that we are or are not going
to approve or deny any application," says Frank Sapienza, the DEA's
chief of drug and chemical evaluation, implying that every case is a
judgment call that could go either way.

Nonetheless, the agency has rejected every application it has ever
received. How many? There's no telling--literally. The agency will say
only that "the DEA does not have records of the number of applications
received for such activities"--an extraordinary claim from an
organization that documents every marijuana plant that it and
cooperating law enforcement agencies uproot from U.S. soil. (In 2001,
the total was 3,304,760 plants, though nearly all of them were feral
hemp, or "ditchweed," not marijuana.)

Any denial that there is a U.S. hemp prohibition contradicts a salient
fact: The DEA has never approved an application for commercial hemp

Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jan 2004
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
The Demonized Seed
Section: Sunday Magazine
Copyright: 2004 Los Angeles Times
Contact: letters@latimes.com
Website: Los Angeles Times