A bitter food fight has broken out between the U.S. government and
manufacturers of certain beers, bread, pretzels, cereals, granola bars and
butterlike spreads that contain hemp.

For years, health food manufacturers have touted the plant's seeds and oil
as something close to a miracle nutrient, high in vitamin E and essential
fatty acids, and richer in protein than meat and fish.

But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says hemp is on a par with
marijuana. Not only is hemp part of the same plant, but it also contains
small amounts of the same psychoactive substance that gives a joint its jolt.

The debate has landed before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San
Francisco, which may determine as early as next month whether hemp foods
can continue to be sold.

The decision will have strong repercussions in California, home to more
hemp food manufacturers than any other state. Already, the issue has caused
rifts within the small but vocal $5 million hemp food industry, confusion
among retailers and anxiety among consumers who fear they might not be able
to buy the products much longer.

"The United States is the only country that refuses to make a distinction
between industrial hemp and the marijuana drug," says David Bronner of
Escondido, Calif. He is president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, which
contains hemp oil, and chairman of the Hemp Industry Association's food and
oils committee. "What the DEA is doing is ridiculous."

But DEA officials say they are merely interpreting existing drug laws, not
expanding them to encompass products once considered acceptable.

The ruckus started Oct. 9, when the DEA issued a new rule on industrial
hemp products in the Federal Register, which publishes federal regulations,
executive orders, proclamations and proposed rules. The rule banned from
food products any hemp seed and oil containing any trace of
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active substance found in marijuana.

Manufacturers and retailers initially were given until Feb. 6 to stop
making and selling the products, but that deadline has been extended to
March 18 to give the appellate court time to rule. (Hemp clothing and
cosmetics, such as Bronner's soap, already are exempt because they do not
cause THC to enter the body.)

No Taint To Test

The Hemp Industry Association says studies have shown that the trace
amounts of THC in hemp foods cannot cause a high or result in a positive
urine test for marijuana, even when unrealistically high amounts of hemp
seed and oil are consumed.

The amount of THC in industrial hemp oil, according to the association, is
0.0005 percent; in shelled hemp seed, it is 0.00015 percent. In comparison,
it's about 10 percent in the illegal street drug, according to the Hemp
Industry Association.

Hemp has been grown for at least 5,000 years in China for its health
properties, which include use as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic,
emollient and a diuretic, according to the association. But hemp foods
didn't start appearing on U.S. store shelves until about 1992. Hemp seeds
resemble sesame seeds with a taste described as similar to pine nuts or
sunflower seeds. Some people say that certain hemp foods leave a strong,
medicinal aftertaste.

Manufacturers argue that their products are being singled out. Poppy-seed
bagels, they note, contain a trace amount of opiate from poppies.
Decaffeinated coffee contains a minuscule amount of caffeine. Nyquil lists
alcohol as its first ingredient. And kava kava, an herbal supplement, is
used as a mood-altering drink by Pacific Islanders and has been linked to
liver toxicity cases in some European countries.

But Congress specifically exempted poppy seeds from substance-abuse laws in
1970. And caffeine, alcohol and kava kava are not covered under the 1970
Controlled Substances Act.

"The act doesn't just name marijuana. It also names THC. That is the key
difference," says DEA spokesman Will Glaspy.

The Fight For Hemp

In January, the Hemp Industry Association went on the counter-attack,
filing an appeal in federal court to overturn the new DEA rule.
Additionally, Kenex Ltd. of Canada, the largest exporter of hemp seed to
the United States, has filed a notice of intent to sue the government under
the North American Free Trade Agreement for impeding its access to U.S.
markets. (U.S. laws already prevent hemp from being cultivated here.)

Although the DEA began studying hemp foods before George W. Bush took
office, some hemp proponents believe the timing of the new rule is not a
coincidence. A few have even accused the DEA of purposely waiting until
after Sept. 11 in hopes the new rule would be overlooked by a nation
preoccupied with terrorism, a charge the DEA calls preposterous.

Hemp products accounted for about $25 million in sales in 2000, mostly for
clothing and cosmetics. Only about 20 companies make hemp foods, but food
is considered the fastest-growing sector.

According to the DEA, hemp and marijuana are separate parts of the same
species of cannabis plant. The marijuana portions include the flowering
tops or buds, the leaves and the resin. The rest of the plant--stalks and
seeds--is considered hemp.

Though widely grown in much of the world, growing industrial hemp is
illegal in the United States, except in Hawaii, where it is being grown for
research purposes.

The Hemp Industry Association, though, considers hemp and marijuana
different breeds because marijuana plants are bred for greater amounts of
THC and hemp is not.

Why not solve the dispute by eliminating all THC from any industrial hemp
used in food? At least one hemp-foods manufacturer says it already has.

HempNut Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif., the largest importer of shelled hemp
seeds in the United States, says that since 1994 its seeds have contained
no THC. The company sells the seeds to other hemp-food companies and uses
them in its own line of hemp cookies, butters and chips.

According to president Richard Rose, the trace amount in industrial hemp is
found in a resin on the seed's hull. Once the seeds are hulled, he says,
the THC is removed, though others say even hulled seeds contain trace amounts.

"Frankly, we saw this coming a mile away," Rose says of the DEA's
zero-tolerance declaration. "But everyone else wanted to fight it because
they're activists."

Good, And Bad, For Business

Rose, one of the few manufacturers who thinks his peers should comply
rather than fight the DEA, worries that the industry's stance will lead to
the downfall of the hemp food market. He says he has already lost brokers
and distributors for some products.

But John Roulac, a plaintiff in the appeal and founder of Nutiva, a
3-year-old Sebastopol, Calif., company that makes bars and chips with hemp
seed, says the controversy has been a boon for business. His sales doubled
in January from December, and he expects them to double again this month.

"The whole DEA thing has been a blessing in disguise," he says.

There is a similar split among retailers.

Whole Foods, which sells about half a dozen brands of hemp-food products in
its 130 stores nationwide, has said it will no longer carry such products
without documentation from manufacturers that they meet DEA requirements.
Whole Foods already has removed some items.

But the five New Leaf markets in Santa Cruz County, Calif., are considering
a petition drive against the DEA's action. "We haven't been contacted by
anyone to take anything off the shelves and we won't unless someone does,"
says Nellie Donovan, manager of the Felton, Calif., store. "This is a
thriving industry and these products are good for people."

Paul Magdaleno, a Santa Cruz musician, agrees. He regularly shops at the
New Leaf Market in Santa Cruz for hemp lip balm, hemp granola, hemp snack
bars and hemp ale. He enjoys the food products, adding that hemp is pretty
flavorless unless you bite down on a seed.

Says the 31-year-old, "I just like the fact that these products are made
from something good."

Pubdate: Wed, 13 Mar 2002
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2002 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact: ctc-TribLetter@Tribune.com
Website: http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/82
Author: Carolyn Jung, Knight Ridder/Tribune
Note: Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ken McLaughlin contributed to
this report.