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DEA Stops Hemp Trade Cold

Posted on November 1, 1999

John Roulac is no activist, he’s a compost expert who started a company that sells nutrition bars.

Same goes for Jean Laprise. He’s a Canadian who just wants to grow crops, process, and ship product out the door.

But both have become full-time lobbyists, press agents and agitators because of a recent move by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

“We’re not activists,” said Laprise, president of Kenex Ltd., an Ontario company that grows industrial hemp, a crop that thrived in its second legal growing season in Canada. “But now we’ve been put in a difficult situation.”

Now, instead of shipping that product to the huge U.S. market, he’s spending time talking on the phone trying to change the minds of the DEA, which he said illegally seized more than 20 tons of sterilized hemp seeds and then detained boxcars of other products containing hemp.

“I think it’s embarrassing for the average U.S. citizen,” Laprise said.

Roulac is an American businessman, president of Nutiva Inc., the Sebastopol, Calif., company that sells, among other things, the Nutiva bar containing hemp seeds. Touting a bar that is “loaded with protein, essential fatty acids and vitamin E,” Roulac sold 100,000 units in his first five months.

Now his sales have trailed off. He’s using what supplies he has in a warehouse, but when his inventory is used up he’s not sure what he’ll do. “Our sales were exploding,” Roulac said, “but now we’re in limbo.”

He’s not alone. As customers in natural products stores keep asking for more hemp products, manufacturers are trying to catch up but find themselves hamstrung by the DEA enforcement. Roulac, who also deals in wholesale hemp, said several different manufacturers are feeling the squeeze. “I had a customer just last week who wanted to buy 5,000 pounds of seed to use in a nutritional beverage. I had to turn him down,” Roulac said.

Officially, the DEA stopped the shipment because some sterilized seed had 14 parts per million THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. Marijuana has from 4 percent to 30 percent THC. In Canada, farmers can grow hemp legally, and THC levels of up to 0.3 percent are tolerated. The seed impounded had 0.0014 percent. The DEA said it was stopping the seeds because it has a zero-tolerance for any THC.

Laprise said that with the amount of THC in his hemp, a person would have to eat approximately a half-million Nutiva bars‹or enough to fill a tractor-trailer in one sitting to feel any psychoactive effects.

Laprise and Roulac both said it is just a matter of time before the DEA is overruled. The laws that govern transportation of cannabis specifically allow hemp oil and seeds sterilized by baking them at 212 degrees for at least 15 minutes. “The DEA has taken a very strong and illegal stand,” Laprise said. “You have an institution in your country that is acting above the law.”

Roulac said the issue is one that should really hit home for the natural products industry. Not only is hemp nutritious and good tasting, he said, it is a great organically grown crop. It is such a fast-growing plant that it chokes out weeds, and it has been grown for two years in Canada with no need for pesticides. Roulac said it makes an excellent rotation crop with corn and soy because it eliminates many weeds before they can turn to seed. “It’s a phenomenal rotation crop,” Roulac said.

And hemp seeds have not been genetically modified. As that issue grows in importance, Roulac said he plans to use packaging touting the bars as “free of GMOs.”

So while Roulac doesn’t enjoy his current conundrum, he said the result is more exposure for hemp, something that could help sales skyrocket once the DEA stops meddling, he said. The enforcement has gotten attention from The New York Times and investigative journalist Jack Anderson.

But Roulac said that while the attention is nice, he knows it can be fleeting. He said it is the health food stores that will help the hemp industry in the long term. “That’s the question I have, will the natural products industry stand strong and support hemp products?

Copyright © 1999, Natural Foods Merchandiser. All rights reserved.