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DEA Not Hemp To The Jive

Posted on October 11, 2000

When Minnesota National Guardsmen set fire to some 35,000 stalks of wild-growing marijuana, seized in “Operation Emerald Harvest” last August, they were highly excited with their accomplishment. “We’re breaking some hearts today,” a staff sergeant joked to a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter on the beat.

Maybe so, but I’ll bet most potheads weren’t crying rivers.

Turns out that much of the marijuana seized in programs like “Operation Emerald Harvest” is actually hemp, Mary Jane’s non-intoxicant botanical cousin. In fact, nearly 80 percent of marijuana destroyed in Virginia’s eradication programs in 1996, according to the state auditor’s office, was found to be hemp, sometimes called ditchweed.

Maybe the drug warriors need a botany lesson.

As it happens, the ingredient in marijuana that makes folks want to wear Birkenstocks, drive old Volkswagens and listen to the Byrds’ “Easy Rider,” is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, THC for short. And, while marijuana contains about 5 percent THC by weight and is specifically cultivated for it, hemp contains less than 1 percent. In other words, you could probably get higher smoking a bale of straw than anything rolled from hemp.

Not that folks don’t try. As Ananova reported Oct. 3, thieves recently raided Kemptville College of Agricultural Technology in Ottawa, making off with most of their cannabis crop. The only problem: The plunder was clearly marked as hemp, having negligible THC content. Maybe once the thieves discover they can’t get any higher than a stunted hop on a broken toe, they’ll go into the textile business; hemp, after all, makes good cloth.

Unfortunately, dopey criminals are not the only ignorati when it comes to hemp.

According to a statement at the Demand Reduction Section of the DEA’s website, the agency’s position “is unequivocally opposed to the legalization of illicit drugs (including, marijuana, hemp, and hemp seed oil).“

The trouble is that hemp is not an illicit drug. “The term ‘marihuana,’” according to U.S. Code Title 21 Section 802 (16), “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.”

But, “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, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.”

“Therefore,” concluded the Justice Department’s own chief of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs, John Roth, in a March 23 letter to DEA Acting Administrator Donnie Marshall, “products derived from this portion of the cannabis plant commonly referred to as ‘hemp’ are explicitly excluded from regulation under the Controlled Substance Act.”

That isn’t stopping Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey from trying.

Citing fears that the growing use of hemp products are “confounding our federal drug control testing programs,” McCaffrey and the DEA are considering banning food and personal-care products made from hemp.

If a June 10 letter from McCaffrey to Hawaiian Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink is anything to go by, it seems McCaffrey and Co. are worried that the growing trend of ingesting non-psychoactive hemp seeds and hemp seed oil, along with using the various lotions, soaps and shampoos made from marijuana’s nonintoxicant relative is fouling up office-place drug testing.

Because these products “are of significant concern,” explains McCaffrey, “we are discussing an appropriate solution within the Departments of Justice and Treasury.”

The solution? Skirt Congress and ban safe and healthy hemp products by bureaucratic fiat. While no action has yet been taken, “The agency is still exploring the possibility of addressing the cannabis/hemp issue through Administrative Rule,” wrote DEA Congressional Affairs Chief Toni P. Teresi in a Sept. 25 letter to Hemp Industries Association President Cindy Biggers.

But Barry’s Heroes are more than a bit out of joint on this one.

First, there is little to back the constitutionality of the Controlled Substances Act, since Congress is never granted the authority to dictate what folks ingest in Article 1, Section 8 and are forbidden to go beyond Section 8’s limits by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. But since violating the Constitution has been a growth enterprise for over a century now, I guess that matters about as much as any other promise made by politicians. Further, the Controlled Substances Act clearly delineates between marijuana and hemp, as the U.S. government has ever since the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, and, since Congress is the only federal body allowed to tweak with the law by making or revising legislation, the DEA — an executive branch agency — is clearly going out of bounds.

Beyond that, according to some, McCaffrey’s drug-test scare is just a green herring. Because hemp products contain, if any, only trace amounts of THC, these products are about as psychoactive as a poppy seed muffin and have negligible effect in terms of drug testing. One study published this summer by the North American Industrial Hemp Council, conducted by Leson Environmental Consulting of Berkeley, Calif., had participants ingest some 6 tablespoons of hemp seed oil or half a pound of commercial quality hulled hemp seeds — an amount so large researchers commented, “Even hemp food connoisseurs rarely consume such quantities” — and still fell under the THC threshold that would trigger a positive.

So much for “confounding … federal drug control testing programs.”

Even if drug tests red flag hemp consumers because of trace levels of THC, people should retain the choice to ingest. The federal government has no legal warrant to step in and remove harmless products because they foul up the results of its tests; as Lincoln reminded America in the Gettysburg address, ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” not the other way around. Hemp consumers should tell McCaffrey to get some more sophisticated tests.

Not that he’ll listen. McCaffrey’s push has little really to do with drug testing. My suspicion is that the drug czar is simply extending a middle finger in the direction of America’s pot culture, which shares an affinity for hemp and hemp products, regardless of any intoxicating qualities.

Concerned about state legislation pushing for hemp cultivation, McCaffrey fired off a letter, quoted in the Feb. 29 Chicago Sun-Times, to an Illinois state representative that more directly reveals the czar’s motive. “The federal government,” he wrote, “is concerned that hemp cultivation may be a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana.”

Ah, so that’s it. Hemp cultivation might be the gateway crop to everybody’s most-feared gateway drug, marijuana.

Rather than risk that drug-control apocalypse, McCaffrey and the DEA are going after a completely harmless substance and stepping up the war on the Constitution by usurping the Congress’ legislative authority and attempting to ban hemp by bureaucratic rule. This only highlights what makes the politicization of drug consumption so loathsome; we’re going to go after hemp for reason A, which is really a passable smokescreen for reason B. Rather than deal with drugs on a medical and social level, we deal with them on a legal and political level, opening it up to all the lies and prevarication for which politics is best known. Given that, I think it’s safe to say that, while hemp is totally benign and possibly beneficial substance for its consumers, it brings out the worst in its opponents.

Maybe we should ban them instead.

If the DEA decides to dodge Congress and rule against hemp by administrative fiat, the new regulations will be published in the Federal Register, which will open a 30-day comment period.

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