Hemp Held Hostage

Hemp Held Hostage
Posted by FoM on November 15, 1999 at 23:00:15 PT
By Terri Lagerstedt
Source: Fairfield Weekly
Ontario-based Kenex has been exporting birdseed to the United States since the mid 1990s. But on Aug. 9, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized a truckload of Kenex's birdseed on its way through U.S. customs. Birdseed? 
Defying federal law, industrial hemp is proving itself to be, both literally and figuratively, one durable little plant.Why on earth would the DEA take such a strong action against a product as innocuous as birdseed? The answer lies in the fact that Kenex is Canada's leading producer, processor and distributor of hemp products and the birdseed being exported to the United States contained sterilized hemp seed. That day it didn't seem to matter that Kenex has been exporting this same product to the United States for years without incident. Nor did it seem to matter that, according to the DEA's own definition, hemp seed is a perfectly legal item to import. It wasn't until nearly two months later, on Oct. 6, that the DEA finally issued a press release stating that "recently, DEA and other federal agencies have become aware that sterilized cannabis seed has been imported into the United States for use in food products for human consumption. Furthermore, some of that seed, and products made from that seed, may be contaminated with THC." Tetrahydrocannabinol -- THC -- is the psychoactive ingredient found in the cannabis plant. Ah, other words: marijuana, pot, weed, doobie...and star of the '30s cult classic Reefer Madness. That might be the first connection you make when you hear the word cannabis. You might not even be aware that there's more to marijuana than getting high. As in most families, it's the notorious members that get all the attention; with the Reefer Madness mentality still alive and well in the United States, it's little wonder that another member of the cannabis family has been unfairly maligned and its benefits sabotaged by literal-minded bureaucrats. Even so, the seeds of the cannabis plant contain no THC -- although when bits of plant matter inadvertently brush against the seeds and stick there, traces can be found in hemp seed products. However, the lab reports accompanying the fated Kenex shipment clearly indicated that the hemp seed in that shipment contained virtually no THC -- and certainly not enough to get anyone high. Futhermore, that shipment of birdseed wasn't intended for human consumption, it was for the birds. So before you go jumping to conclusions about Farmer Joe's pet chicken hopped up on hemp seed with a case of the munchies, there are a few things you should know. The first thing to take into account is the difference between marijuana and its misunderstood cousin. Simply put, industrial hemp is not marijuana. According to hemp activist and former HempWorld publisher Mari Kane, the confusion stems from the fact that marijuana and industrial hemp are different strains of the same species of plant. Where marijuana has been bred for its psychoactive qualities, hemp has been bred for its fiber and its seed content. And in breeding for these attributes, the level of THC is reduced, rendering industrial hemp useless both medicinally and recreationally. "The main difference," she explained, "is determined by the THC levels in the plant." And there simply isn't enough THC -- less than 1 percent -- found in industrial hemp to get you high. It might not get you high, but industrial hemp is a very useful natural resource. Hemp fiber is employed in making everything from canvas and rope to clothing and textiles. If you're up on your hemp history, you're already aware that drafts of our own Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, that Henry Ford built a car that was made from hemp fiber and ran on hemp-based fuel, and that during the World Wars, farmers were required to grow hemp used for supplies to aid the war effort. In fact, industrial hemp has been touted as the plant with 25,000 uses. That much utility makes it a hard natural resource to ignore. In recent years, the fashion industry has been leaping onto the proverbial bandwagon. Designers Calvin Klein and Gianni Versaci use hemp fabric in some of their clothing. Adidas manufactures hemp sneakers. Aside from the myriad historical examples of hemp fiber being used to make paper, rope and sails and its visibility in modern fashion, there are some more interesting, less publicized items manufactured using hemp fiber. For instance, the 1999 model year car you're driving may be equipped with parts utilizing hemp fiber. In addition to the multiple uses for the fiber, the oil pressed from the hemp seed can be used as a base for paints and varnishes. While hemp's versatility is impressive, its most noteworthy qualities are its strength and durability. Hemp paper, for instance, can last for hundreds of years without deteriorating. Clothing made from hemp is far more durable than apparel made from cotton. Not only is material made with hemp fiber strong and durable, it's also more environmentally desirable because it's biodegradable. Hemp can be cultivated in virtually any growing climate and is naturally more resistant to pests, therefore requiring less use of toxic pesticides. According to the Cannabis Action Network, cotton is not as pest resistant as hemp and is responsible for more than 50 percent of the pesticides used in the United States today. And in terms of paper production, an acre of hemp can yield two to four times more pulp than an acre of trees. Not to mention, hemp is a far more renewable resource. While it takes years to replenish that acre of trees, hemp is ready to be harvested in a mere 90 to 120 days. Why then is it now considered a crime to grow and explore this dynamo of a natural resource? Theories abound. There are those who expostulate that after Prohibition, out-of-work law enforcement guns-for-hire needed something to do in the post-Prohibition era and enforcing new drug laws was their most appealing option. So to convince the American public that these jobs were necessary, they collectively resorted to scare tactics, playing on the public's racist tendencies and aligning drug use with minorities and convincing parents of the dangers of drugs Another popular and more commonly held theory is laden with accusations of corporate greed. As the usefulness of hemp was becoming widely known -- a 1937 issue of Popular Mechanics hailed hemp as the "New Billion Dollar Crop" -- it seems this useful little plant was posing a threat to big business. Specifically, the land interests of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and companies like Dupont Chemical Company. In an alleged conspiracy -- or at the very least, a smear campaign that has all the earmarks of a cloak and dagger movie classic -- suddenly the hideous drug marijuana and its guilty-by-association relative were under attack from the media. The American public was led to believe that their new billion-dollar crop was somehow responsible for leading their children astray. And in 1937, Federal Bureau of Narcotics director Harry Aslinger testified before Congress, stating, among other things, that marijuana was responsible for causing "white women to seek out sexual relations with Negroes." Playing on the public's tendencies toward paranoia and racism, the federal government placed a prohibitive tax on marijuana the following year. Although provisions were made to allow farmers to continue growing hemp, the industry was now highly regulated, making the billion-dollar crop less and less cost effective. Farmers began to abandon industrial hemp in search of more profitable crops. Federal law still does not technically prohibit growing industrial hemp -- all you need is a license issued by the DEA. According to Kane, however, "The political policies of this country have made it prohibitive. The laws that are on the books should allow for industrial hemp to be grown." After the World War II, she continued, "the DEA just sort of stopped giving licenses to farmers, and if you don't have a license to do something, well, it sort of makes it illegal." Regardless, the fact re-mains that today we are ignoring a valuable natural resource. Whether or not the stories are true, the hemp movement is now beginning to abandon the legends behind the rise and subsequent fall of industrial hemp. Who, then, is hemp's new arch enemy? According to Mari Kane, "the biggest industry that is against any kind of decriminalizing hemp is the drug-testing industry. They're the ones who have been fighting us over the infinitely miniscule amounts of THC that might be pressed into the [hemp seed] oil causing people to test falsely positive in drug tests." So what is the correlation between false-positive drug tests and the drug-testing industry's campaign against legalizing industrial hemp? Attorney at law and president of Ohio Hempery Inc. Don Wirtshafter ex-plained that connection. "Well, it means that someone's going to lose their job or go back to jail or be court-martialed from the Army based on a wrong answer." And that means potential lawsuits. "This started because one company five years ago produced a hemp oil using Chinese materials with a high level of THC," Wirshafter continued. "They didn't clean the seeds well and they ended up producing an oil with 13 parts per million [THC], which is .13 percent. This lab proved that if you consumedenough of this oil over a period of several days, you could raise your level to a point where you could fail a urine test." Wirtshafter went on to say that although this was a singular incident and there are no hemp products on the market now with enough THC to cause a false positive in a urine test, the red flags went up and the drug-testing industry became concerned that hemp products -- specifically those designed for human consumption -- could become a threat to them. Drug-testing is a growing industry as entrepreneurs endeavor to capture their share of the market by offering fast-and-easy testing. "Fast and easy is a formula for problems as far as we're concerned," said George Howe of Shelton-based Gregory and Howe. "The drug-testing program that [we] work with mirrors what the Department of Health and Human Services put in place in 1988 as mandated by the Department of Transportation." The standards that Gregory and Howe maintain include both a series of checks and balances in the laboratory and a rigorous certification process. With these standards in place, Howe isn't concerned with the possibility of false positive test results. "All positive tests," he said, "are reviewed by a medical review officer before being reported to the company. In many cases the medical review officer will overturn a laboratory result because of a dietary [reason] or prescription drug." What the possible THC contamination of sterilized birdseed has to do with anything, no one seems to be sure. Kane theorizes that domestic birds that eat the possibly THC-contaminated birdseed are at risk for increasing their levels of THC and when they are subsequently ingested by humans, there is the slight possibility of a false-positive drug test. Wirtshafter doubts it, but he does say that the DEA's press release stating that it just discovered hemp was being imported for use in food products is untrue. "We've got statements back from 1985 showing that [the DEA] knew it was being used for food," Wirtshafter noted. At any rate, Wirshafter maintains that there are no hemp food products currently on the market that could possibly cause a urine test to show a positive result. The amount of THC present to make a person test positive is 15 nanograms per liter or .000000015 percent. Mari Kane wasn't kidding when she said the amount in question was miniscule. In a similar circumstance, there's the poppy seed issue. Yes, it's true that if you eat a poppy seed bagel prior to a drug test, it's going to show up. According to Wirtshafter, "When this came down, they understood that poppy seeds could cause a positive [result], and they raised the threshold levels. So maybe an occasional heroin user could get away with it and pass a test, but at least they weren't persecuting poppy seed bagel lovers." Why is a false positive from hemp an issue when a false positive from poppy seeds isn't? "There's a test," Wirtshafter explained, "that isn't used very often, but they can tell the difference between poppy seed consumption and heroin." At this point in time there is no such test to tell the difference between a false positive caused by hemp food products as opposed to a positive result caused by marijuana use. Furthermore, in a press release dated March 12, 1998, the DEA sets forth the following definition for contraband cannabis: The term "marihuana means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin." The definition goes on to say that, "such term does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, another compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture or preparation of such mature stalks (except for the resin extracted there from), fiber, oil or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination." This definition speaks to a couple of things. The first being that the DEA makes no distinction between industrial hemp, which is bred for its fiber and seeds and has a low THC content, and marijuana, which is bred for its psychoactive properties. The only distinction recognized by the DEA is that specific parts of the cannabis plant contain no THC and are therefore not illegal. And yet, the DEA is to date still in possession of a shipment of birdseed that by their own definition is perfectly legal. What, you might wonder, does all of this have to do with the drug-testing industry? Well, says Wirt-shafter, "leaders of the drug-testing industry came out of the Drug Enforcement Ad-ministration, so they're protecting their own." The DEA's public affairs officer, Rogene Waite, re-ferred all questions regarding the agency's official position on the industrial hemp issue to the agency's web site . In that March 12, 1998, press release, the DEA maintains its position that "Hemp, Indian Hemp, marijuana, and cannabis are other names for the Schedule I substance marijuana." Don Wirtshafter takes exception to the DEA's classification of the THC found in industrial hemp as a Schedule I substance, explaining that "organic [from a living plant] THC is not in itself in Schedule I, only chemically derived products of equal or similar chemistry." Regardless, the DEA still makes no distinction and holds industrial hemp to the standards set forth by the Controlled Substances Act, which "requires that a determination be made that any such production would be in the public interest. A prime consideration of the public interest rests with the threat of diversion associated with cultivation. The cultivation of the marijuana plant exclusively for commercial/industrial purposes has many associated risks relating to diversion into the illicit drug traffic." Regardless of the drug-testing industry's and the DEA's narrow definition of the cannabis plant, hemp does seem to be making some headway. This year, 14 states introduced hemp-related legislation. Only six of those states -- Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota and Virginia -- managed some success. North Dakota's House Bill 1428, for instance, states that "Any person in this state may plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, sell and buy industrial hemp." And while the passage of such a bill creates some headway, the fact remains that federal law supersedes state law. So despite House Bill 1428, North Dakota won't be planting, growing or harvesting any industrial hemp; rather, activists hope that this bill and others like it will provide enough leverage to change federal law.And as the U.S. demand for hemp products continues to grow, the powers that be are going to be forced to take a closer look as continuing to import hemp fiber and products will make less sense than growing and manufacturing our own. In light of this growing industry one thing is becoming increasingly clear: industrial hemp is proving itself to be, both literally and figuratively, one durable little plant. Published: November 16, 1999Related Articles & Web Sites:The Ohio Hempery Ltd. It! - 11/14/99 For Hemp - 10/13/99 1999 New Mass. Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
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