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THC Issue Threatens Hemp Industry Growth

Posted on April 1, 2001

DEA considers banning trace amounts of THC in hemp foods and body care products, threatening an industry already struggling to maintain a viable retail presence.

Washington, DC — In some individuals, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, produces paranoia. Judging by a current controversy, when THC is found in hemp, it produces hysteria.

Last November, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) made public its plans to publish rules that would effectively ban hempseed and hemp oil products that might cause the ingestion of THC. That’s a hysterical response to an innocuous issue, say many in the domestic hemp industry, which includes a growing number of companies that manufacture and distribute hemp foods, oils and personal care products. Some supporters of hemp appear to be reacting in kind to DEA’s proposed position, lambasting the agency for planning to arrest and imprison people for “using shampoo or eating cakes,” in the words of one pro-hemp group.

Hyperbole aside, the rule changes represent a threat to the hemp foods and hemp oil markets, say industry insiders. “DEA’s actions are market development in reverse,” says John Roulac, author of Hemp Horizons and owner of hemp foods company Nutiva, based in Ojai, Calif. “DEA is out to destroy the market,” he says. Roulac, a board member of the North American Industrial Hemp Council, believes the hemp foods and hemp body care products industry is fighting a scare campaign by the government. “They’re basically trying to intimidate Canadian farmers from growing hemp seed, and manufacturers from making hemp foods,” he says.

But the industry’s shrill response to DEA’s plans is only working against hemp companies by “creating a climate of fear among retailers, distributors, manufacturers and allied industries regarding the legality or availability of hempseed products,” says Richard Rose, founder of the Hemp Food Association and owner of HempNut Inc., a hemp foods company, both based in Santa Rosa, Calif. “It’s such a small market.” Edible hempseed products sales are well under $5 million annually in North America, and hempseed oil for body care products account for only another $5 million at import, according to Rose.

Many companies are now in a fragile predicament. “In the past 18 months, at least 12 companies have suspended hemp-product operations, and at least another 10 are on the verge of the same,” Rose says.

Hemp and marijuana are both derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Comprised of the stalks and seeds of the plant, hemp contains trace levels of THC too low to produce the euphoric effect that marijuana is known for. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, cannabis stalks, oil, salts, compounds, derivatives and sterilized seeds are not classified as marijuana, and thus remain legal. Domestic cultivation of the plant, however, is outlawed. The North American Industrial Hemp Council estimates the worldwide market for all uses and products of hempsaid to have some 25,000 commercial applications at $600 million this year.

With high protein content and plentiful antioxidants, hemp-seed oil is being used in a widening array of food and cosmetic products. But DEA is concerned about what’s barely there at all: trace amounts of THC. In March 2000, Donnie Marshall, head of DEA, asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) whether the importation of hemp products could be restricted under current law. In a letter obtained by hemp supporters, John Roth, chief of DOJ’s Narcotic & Dangerous Drug Section, stated that because the raw materials used in hemp food products are excluded from the definition of marijuana, their trace amounts of THC are excluded from regulation.

Nevertheless, in August of last year, DEA seized 18,000 kilograms of sterilized hemp seed coming into the U.S. at a Canadian/U.S. Customs center in Detroit. The seeds were released in November.

Then in November, DEA announced its intention to interpret existing federal law “such that any substance containing any amount of THC is a Schedule I controlled substance even if such substance is made from ‘hemp.’” Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, anything with trace amounts of THC would then be restricted in the same manner as such illegal drugs as cocaine and heroin. The agency also plans to enact an interim rule exempting hemp fiber products from Schedule I status but targeting products “that result in THC entering the human body.”

Responding to questions from Natural Business, DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite refused to comment until the agency publishes its new rules and also declined to say when publication would take place. “Watch the Federal Register for the regulations,” she advises.

The hemp industry claims DEA is proceeding improperly. “DEA has no legal authority or scientific basis to proceed,” says David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in Escondido, Calif., which uses hemp oil in some of its products. “Formal substantive rule-making procedures with public comment and evaluation of all relevant scientific evidence is required,” he says.

That position was argued to DEA in a Feb. 16 letter and legal brief by Sandler, Reiff & Young, a Washington, D.C., law firm retained by Dr. Bronner’s and 16 other hemp products companies in the U.S. and Canada. At press time, the agency had not responded to the letter.

In an interesting twist, when DEA publishes its new rules, the government of Canada will demand the agency’s scientific justification under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which prohibits parties to the treaty from banning products that are legal in member nations without scientific justification, says Ruth Shamai, president of Toronto-based Ruth’s Hemp Food Inc., and R&D Hemp Inc. Canada currently allows up to 10 parts per million [10 ppm] of THC in hempseed. “Hemp is in no way psychoactive,” Shamai says. “I have personally stood in a burning field of hemp, and if you wanted to get a buzz under those conditions, you’d have to drink a beer.”

Rather than focusing on psychoactive effects, the agency is basing its position on the threat that hemp products pose to individuals who must take drug tests. Hemp will make innocent consumers appear to be drug users, according to DEA.

“The DEA’s rationale of alleged drug-test interference was true years ago, when hemp oil had as much as 100 parts per million THC,” Bronner says. “But as the industry became aware of the problem, the drug-test issue was completely addressed through cleaner production, which results currently in hemp oil at less than 5 ppm THC, and seed at less than 2 ppm THC.”

Those levels are too low to affect most drug tests, except in the case of heavy, daily consumption of hemp products, a recent industry-sponsored study concluded.

However, Rose claims the industry is only hurting itself by attacking DEA rather than concentrating on improving production to eliminate THC content. “This is not a ban on hemp foods, but a ban on THC,” he says. “The hempseed product industry absolutely has the technology to provide ‘zero THC’ hempseed and products, and should move to comply with the new mandate. Improving processing standards to meet challenges in today’s market is the only way to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of the hempseed products industry.”

Copyright © 2001, Natural Business Magazine. All rights reserved.