No one is saying Kentucky doesn't offer its share of distinctive
intoxicants. Bourbon and tobacco have long been popular drugs here, and
even in these abstemious times, a well-known member of the political class
will occasionally pour his visitors a glass of moonshine from a Mason jar
with plumped cherries bobbing on the bottom.

But the farmers around Lexington are mostly old-fashioned men with a
serious problem: the decline in demand for U.S. tobacco. And when they tell
you they know of a crop that could help replace tobacco and maybe save
their farms, they aren't promoting any stoner foolishness. True, the crop
they hope to grow is known to botanists as Cannabis sativa, but different
races within that species can have widely varying amounts of
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the merrymaking chemical in pot. Marijuana will
typically have anywhere from 3% to 20% THC. Hemp is bred to contain less
than 1%. You could roll and smoke every leaf on a 15-ft. hemp plant and
gain little more than a hacking cough.

Next month, however, the Drug Enforcement Administration is set to begin
enforcing a new rule treating foods that contain "any amount of" THC (even
nonpsychoactive amounts) as controlled substances, making them as
restricted as heroin. Anyone possessing such foods is supposed to dispose
of them now, though hemp sellers and eaters won't be prosecuted until March
18. Nationally marketed products include the Hempzel Pretzels, baked in
Pennsylvania, and Organic Hemp Plus Granola, made in Blaine, Wash.
Gastronomically speaking, a ban on these earthy-tasting comestibles would
be no great tragedy--though the hemp-crazy Galaxy Global Eatery in New York
City serves an apple pie with a delightful hemp crust.

Economically speaking, though, a ban could ruin the 20 or so companies that
make and sell more than $5 million worth of hemp waffles, salad oils and
other foods a year. Hemp Universe here in Lexington stopped selling food
weeks ago, and Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, recommended last week
that its 129 stores remove hemp products. Other retailers are holding firm,
saying hemp foods contain such tiny traces of THC that the chemical
wouldn't register in a routine lab test. But that's not the same as having
zero THC, and the threat of further DEA action has prompted seven hemp
companies to ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to block the rule. They
say the DEA is effectively creating a new law, not interpreting existing
statutes. A Canadian hemp firm has filed a claim saying the DEA is
violating NAFTA by failing to provide scientific justification for a rule
that "will be nothing short of an absolute ban on trade in hemp food." (The
Canadian government has also formally objected.) The DEA's position is that
U.S. drug laws clearly ban THC--any THC. The court's decision will turn on
the historically murky question of whether Congress intended hemp to be
part of those laws. Some antidrug groups-- including, most stridently, the
Family Research Council--believe allowing hemp foods would send a
pro-marijuana message.

Many farmers are watching the case because it shows how hard the government
will fight a growing movement to legitimize hemp farming in the U.S. Right
now it's legal to sell hemp products but illegal to grow the hemp used in
them, which is imported. The global market for raw hemp is expanding. Foods
are only a fraction of the hemp-product universe, which includes Mercedes
door panels, Body Shop Body Butter, Armani place mats, and countless
humbler items such as twine, carpet and diapers. These nonedibles would
remain legal under the rule. But if the court doesn't intervene, investors
may think twice before supporting a business associated with drugs.

If hemp cultivation were legalized, could it really save U.S. farms? That's
unclear, but legislators in more than 20 states have asked for research.
They know that a year after Canada allowed hemp cultivation in 1998, its
farms were already growing 35,000 acres. The U.S. has taken a different,
more tangled approach to the plant, one that reflects the quick assumptions
of the war on drugs. The farmland around leafland, a once commanding estate
east of Lexington, used to provide a rich bounty to the Graves clan. Jacob
Hughes, a Welshman, first planted in this part of Kentucky in the 1770s,
but now his great-great-grandson, Jacob Hughes Graves III, 75, grows corn
and tobacco only out of tradition. Although he earned his livelihood as a
banker, Graves grew up working on the farm, and he always hoped his land
might provide at least one of his nine children with an agricultural career.

His son Andrew made a go of it, but by the mid-'90s, it was clear to the
son that tobacco was in trouble. Pushing 40, Andrew was wondering what to
do with himself when local entrepreneurs suggested hemp. Products have been
made from the versatile plant for thousands of years. Early American
planters grew it widely; George Washington sowed it on four of his farms.
But the cotton gin--and later nylon--all but killed the industry. Beginning
in the late 1980s, hemp products enjoyed a renaissance, at first as novelty
items for liberals. Greens love hemp because it's a renewable resource and
an effective rotation crop that requires little or no herbicide.
Nutritionists and vegetarians found that hemp oil has an unusually
beneficial ratio of essential fatty acids ("good" fats).

The plan was simple, if naive: Andrew Graves would grow the hemp, then
local companies would sell products made from it. Graves wouldn't have to
go far to learn the horticulture. As a boy, his father Jacob had helped his
father grow hemp on the same land. But there was a small glitch. The
Federal Government began requiring permits to grow Cannabis sativa in 1937,
when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. Some say Congress meant to
exclude hemp from the law, but the regulators who have carried it out have
rarely distinguished between psychoactive and nonpsychoactive cannabis
varieties. Today winning a DEA permit to grow hemp is just as hard as
getting one to grow marijuana.

Jacob thought the regulations were ridiculous, since in all his years on
the farm, no one had done something so silly as smoke hemp. What's more,
the U.S. government had been his biggest buyer of hemp in the '40s.
Cannabis-growing permits were plentiful during World War II because imports
of other fibers dried up. In 1942 the USDA even produced a film, Hemp for
Victory, to encourage farmers to plant hemp to meet wartime demand for rope.

After the war, when the U.S. became concerned that the Mob and foreign
governments were pushing drugs on Americans, hemp became anathema. That did
have a certain logic at a time when the chemical line between the two crops
was more blurred. THC wasn't identified as marijuana's active agent until
1964; it's likely that some pot and hemp plants back then were closer
cousins than they are today. Even now, people caught with marijuana
occasionally claim it's only hemp. Cops have complained that they can't
tell the difference. And as recently as the mid-'90s, a few hemp-food
products could trigger a false-positive result on a drug test.

Advocates say such concerns are out of date. Today hemp can be grown with
its seeds closely monitored to keep THC negligible, and a recent scholarly
study showed that today's hemp foods don't trigger false positives. What's
more, in open fields, low-THC hemp is actually a threat to high-THC
marijuana. Since hemp and marijuana are members of the same species, they
will cross-pollinate, degrading the quality of any pot hidden in a hemp field.

The Graveses thought the U.S. could adopt a simple regulatory scheme of
controlled seed markets and unannounced field inspections. After all,
Britain, Canada and other countries had legalized hemp cultivation without
major incident. And the U.S. made regulatory changes to accommodate poppy
seeds, which contain opiate traces.

But the Graveses needed political help to do the same for hemp, so Andrew
went to an old family friend, Louie Nunn, a former Governor of Kentucky. If
you associate hemp only with Woody Harrelson, Nunn is a jarring figure.
He's a lifelong Republican. He will be 78 in March, and his major
indulgences are University of Kentucky basketball and dirty jokes. But for
Nunn, hemp is about economics, not the drug war. He wants locally grown
hemp to be used for parts in the 1.2 million cars built in Kentucky every
year. Like his allies in other farm-state legislatures who favor hemp, Nunn
opposes marijuana legalization.

But even with the ex-Governor on board, the state is scarcely closer to
cultivating the plant. It did enact a law last year requiring the state
agriculture department to grow and study hemp, but DEA regulations treating
hemp as marijuana make such work expensive--high security is required
around research plots--and Kentucky's plan isn't funded. "I wouldn't expect
us to grow any hemp this year or even next," sighs majority whip Joe
Barrows, a Democrat in the Kentucky house who sponsored the bill. Hawaii
has a small plot where hemp cultivation is allowed, but research is going
slowly.

Since the crack epidemic, drug-law enforcers have been granted huge budget
increases ($19.2 billion this year, up from $3.1 billion in 1982). When the
Ninth Circuit weighs the hemp case, a broader issue will be whether the DEA
has overstepped the authority that accompanies so much cash. For its part,
the agency is seeking to minimize the importance of its new rule on hemp
foods. Last week DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson told TIME the rule could
even change in light of recent objections from the public, though that may
be small comfort to businesses that lose money until then.

Meanwhile, hemp's defenders crop up everywhere. Three years ago, after a
friend convinced former CIA Director James Woolsey of hemp's salubrious
ecological profile, Woolsey became a lobbyist for the North American
Industrial Hemp Council. Woolsey takes no direct swipes at the DEA, but he
impugns its logic. "You'd have to be stark raving mad to try to hide
marijuana in the middle of a hemp crop because of cross-pollination," he
says. "I'm very proud of the fact that I've been attacked in High Times
magazine." A High Times columnist called him a "dirtbag" for promoting
hemp's potential to degrade marijuana grown nearby.

Back in Kentucky, Jacob Graves drives out U.S. 60 a little ways east of
Leafland. He stops at a historical plaque placed by the state to mark
hemp's history. STATE'S LARGEST CASH CROP TILL 1915, it says. "See?" says
Graves. "If we get this done, what's old will be new again." Hemp-crust
apple pie, anyone?



BY JOHN CLOUD/LEXINGTON