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Army Captain, Hemp Food Makers Get No Apology

Posted on April 9, 2004

You don’t have to ponder the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to notice the Bush administration has trouble admitting it erred.

Consider a smaller, quieter misadventure. Consider the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s war on hemp, a harmless and healthy food source.

Ponder why the DEA, having lost three rounds in court, would this week waste more time and tax money appealing the latest one, a court ruling telling the DEA it can’t outlaw hemp.

Or how about the military’s position in the case against Army Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain formerly stationed at the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Authorities last September threw him into solitary confinement for 2 ½ months on suspicion of spying only to discover, quite belatedly, that there wasn’t enough evidence even to formally charge him with that.

Oops.

The Army did charge him with lesser crimes, only to decide last month to drop the worst of those charges, too.

If Yee has a problem with any of this, the Army has advised him to keep it to himself. This week his commander wrote Yee, advising him to squelch any “adverse criticism” or face possible discipline.

Mistaken Actions

Today this column revisits those two topics to report new developments. These two cases, though different from each other, both involve victims of mistaken Bush administration actions who are seeking apologies and are getting the opposite.

In the Yee matter, when authorities couldn’t justify spy charges, they instead accused him of mishandling classified documents.

And while looking for treason, they came up instead with evidence of adultery and a government computer containing pornography. It wasn’t exactly Benedict Arnold material, but it was fodder for more charges, albeit ones normally handled administratively.

And so, at a widely covered, pre-court-martial hearing in December at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the press heard lots of testimony about Yee’s sex life and not much else.

When it came time to offer proof of document mishandling, the Army suspended the hearing to evaluate its evidence. That’s what had happened as of the Dec. 12 column about the case.

Dropping Charges

Then, on March 19, the Army announced it was dropping the documents charges and moving the adultery and pornography allegations to lesser, administrative proceedings.

On March 22, Yee, who had first been told he could face execution, received his final punishment. He was reprimanded.

Yee’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, is appealing the reprimand and says an apology is in order.

A military powerful enough to jail Yee on so little evidence “should be big enough to admit a mistake,” says Fidell.

The military is admitting nothing. Lack of evidence had nothing to do with dropping the documents charge, says Lieutenant Colonel Bill Costello, spokesman for the Southern Command in Miami. Authorities had “security concerns about making the documents in the case public,” he says.

What Yee has received from higher-ups is a memorandum from the commander at his new assignment near Seattle advising him to be careful what he says in public.

“Speech that undermines the effectiveness of loyalty, discipline, or unit morale is not constitutionally protected” under military law, Lieutenant Colonel Marvin Whitaker said in the memo released by Fidell.

“Adverse criticism” of the military “that is disloyal or disruptive to good order and discipline” is also restricted.

What in the world could Yee possibly say that might be the least bit critical of the military?

Hemp Food Case

The legality of hemp food is not the most pressing issue this nation faces, it’s true. No one is getting killed because of Washington’s misjudgment about it.

What makes the hemp case remarkable is the lack of a rationale for the administration’s belief that hemp foods are as illegal as marijuana.

This column has covered the hemp brouhaha beginning Dec. 1, 2001, and most recently Jan. 9.

Since then, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco said in a 3-0 ruling Feb. 6 that the DEA has no legal grounds to outlaw hemp.

Before you dismiss the ruling as just one more bit of craziness from that wacky, frequently reversed, Left Coast court, hold on. One of the three judges on the unanimous panel was Alex Kozinski, a Ronald Reagan appointee, one of the more conservative members of the court and a judge widely respected for his intellect. The two others were Jimmy Carter appointees, including Chief Judge Mary Schroeder.

Exempting Hemp

The panel wrote that the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies certain drugs as illegal, specifically exempts that part of the Cannabis plant that goes into hemp food.

“Congress knew what it was doing, and its intent to exclude non-psychoactive hemp from regulation is entirely clear,” says the opinion.

“It’s nice to have a clean vindication,” says David Bronner, president of the Hemp Industries Association, which sued the DEA.

That was the third time the appeals court ruled against the government. Instead of giving up, the DEA Monday filed for reconsideration by the full 9th Circuit, asserting the panel had misread the law.

Deadline Extended

Apparently, the DEA did also. Its petition arrived a day beyond the deadline, which had already been extended to accommodate the agency.

The fight is over hemp oil and sterilized seeds, which are the ingredients that put the hemp into hemp foods. They come from the same Cannabis plant as marijuana, but contain almost none of marijuana’s mind-altering ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

It is easier to get high off a poppy seed bagel than it is to get a buzz from hemp bread.

This doesn’t matter to the DEA. What matters to the DEA is that even a teeny tiny, itsy bitsy speck of THC is illegal under the law as the DEA reads it.

“They’re a pretty hard-headed bunch,” says Eric Steenstra, president of the hemp advocacy group, Vote Hemp.

Steenstra says advocates will not only seek attorneys fees when the case is over, they are also seeking an apology for the agency’s suppression of a perfectly legitimate business.

“I’m sorry,” are words not often heard in Washington. And yet, remorse is recognized in law. Under federal sentencing policy, a criminal who takes responsibility for his mistakes and displays remorse will get a shorter prison term than the criminal who doesn’t.

The federal government is pretty good at squeezing remorse out of people. What’s difficult is for people to squeeze remorse from the federal government.

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