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Bill would allow hemp farming in California

Posted on April 5, 2005

Sacramento, California — John Roulac wants to give California agriculture a boost and cut his transportation costs at the same time.

Roulac is the founder and chief executive officer of Nutiva, an up-and-coming organic food company that is based in California but that processes and packages most of its products in Canada. The reason: Nutiva sells bars, protein powder, seeds and oil made with hemp, a cousin of marijuana.

Hemp has only a trace of tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC, the drug in marijuana, but hemp can’t be legally grown in the United States without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration. And the DEA has only allowed an experimental plot in Hawaii, according to Adam Eidinger, a spokesman for Vote Hemp, the lobbying arm of the hemp industry.

So Nutiva contracts with Canadian farmers for its hemp, processes it in Canada and imports the finished products.

“We pay Exxon and Chevron a lot of money for gasoline for truckers,” said Roulac. “We’d rather pay that money to California farmers to grow a sustainable crop.”

Assemblyman Mark Leno has a bill that could make that happen. The San Francisco Democrat’s measure would allow the state Department of Food and Agriculture to issue licenses to grow and process hemp.

Bills similar to Leno’s have been introduced in New Hampshire and Oregon. The New Hampshire legislation has passed the House and is awaiting action by the state Senate. North Dakota approved hemp cultivation in 1999, and this year the governor signed a bill allowing the state university to try to develop improved hemp seeds in anticipation of the removal of the federal ban on hemp farming.

Leno’s proposal has a “huge potential economic impact,” said Johanna Schultz, a spokeswoman for the Hemp Industries Association, which has about 300 members, including nearly 50 in California.

“I foresee a whole bunch of new hemp businesses starting up just because of its availability.”

Hemp can be used to make a myriad of products, including clothing, cosmetics, food, paper, rope, jewelry, luggage, sports equipment and toys. As food, hemp is high in essential fatty acids, protein, B vitamins and fiber, its supporters say.

American farmers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, grew hemp for centuries, often under government mandates or with government subsidies. Copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, Leno said.

“The strange irony is that we can presently import the entire hemp plant and manufacturers can produce thousands of different products (using hemp) and then sell them,” he added. “The one component which is missing out on this is the farmer.”

Roulac figures he would save more than $100,000 a year in transportation costs and could cut his prices if he could buy hemp seeds from California growers and process them into food products at a plant he wants to build in Bakersfield.

Michael Bronner said Leno’s bill would eliminate the “massive lead times” he has to deal with in getting hemp oil from Canada and Europe for the soap produced by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an Escondido company started by his grandfather.

“It would be nice if we could get it right here in San Diego County,” he said. “The price would probably be half of what we pay now.”

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said hemp farming could be used to hide marijuana cultivation by mixing the two plants in the field.

“I hope that legislators would look very carefully at this effort and see what factors there are,” he said.

But the bill’s supporters say there is little likelihood that a grower would try to mix marijuana with hemp. The two plants grow differently and cross pollination could result in less-potent strains of marijuana, they say.

Marijuana growers, fearing wind-blown hemp pollen could weaken their crops, are among hemp’s biggest opponents, along with the DEA, said Roulac. “It’s strange bedfellows, isn’t it?”

Also, the bill would require hemp to be tested in the fields to ensure that THC levels did not exceed prescribed limits. It also would bar anyone with a criminal conviction from getting a license to grow or process hemp.

“We’re quite open to putting together regulatory schemes that meet law enforcement’s legitimate concerns,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, director of governmental relations for Vote Hemp.

Leno’s bill attempts to get around federal opposition by requiring farmers to sell hemp seeds, stalks and fibers only to California processors to avoid an interstate commerce grounds for federal intervention.

“With that distinction, there’s no reason why the federal government should get involved,” he said.

Leno said the Bush administration didn’t appeal an appeals court decision last year barring the DEA from banning the sale of food products containing hemp. He interpreted the lack of an appeal as “tacit agreement” by the administration that Congress exempted hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman, Charles Miller, wouldn’t discuss why the administration decided not to appeal. “We don’t make any remarks on why we decline to pursue a case beyond a certain point,” he said.

Eidinger, the Vote Hemp spokesman, said the fight over hemp cultivation is likely to end up in the courts, if Congress doesn’t pass legislation in the meantime allowing hemp farming.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is planning to introduce a bill that would remove any federal roadblocks and allow states to decide if they want their farmers growing hemp.

“I think the courts are leaning our way,” Eidinger said. “If you’re going this direction on hemp food you might as well go one step further and grow the crop.”

California’s two major farm organizations, the Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation, haven’t taken a position on the bill, although spokeswoman Ann Schmidt said the Farm Bureau’s directors had a “lively discussion” about it.

The Schwarzenegger administration also hasn’t taken a stand, said Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the Department of Food and Agriculture.

Copyright © 2005, San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.