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DEA's Hemp Ban Goes Up in Smoke

Laurie Budgar

April 24, 2008

4 Min Read
DEA's Hemp Ban Goes Up in Smoke

For years, a tug of war has been brewing between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and those who believe that hemp has a rightful place in foods. Now, the DEA has let go of its end of the rope. In a landmark decision Feb. 6, a three-judge federal panel overruled the DEA?s ban on using hemp in foods.

The DEA issued an ?interpretive rule? in October 2001, and a final rule in March 2003, which sought to ban the use of hemp seed or oil in foods, out of concern that consumers might become intoxicated after consuming hemp-based foods. THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is present in concentrations of less than 1 percent in hemp.

The Hemp Industries Association fought a two-and-a-half-year battle against the ban, achieving a stay on each of the DEA?s rules and culminating in February?s ruling. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that in its ban, DEA had improperly placed naturally occurring THC, from nonpsychoactive parts of the cannabis plant, on Schedule I of controlled substances. ?The DEA has no authority to regulate drugs that are not scheduled, and it has not followed procedures required to schedule a substance,? the panel wrote.

Because of HIA?s interim victories, ?hemp foods were never made illegal,? said David Bronner, chairman of HIA?s Food and Oil Committee and president of Dr. Bronner?s Magic Soaps in Escondido, Calif.

Because of hemp?s taste and nutritional profile—the seeds are seen as a rich source of protein, essential fatty acids and amino acids—observers like Bronner expect consumer demand to be ?pretty phenomenal.? Even while its legal status was threatened, hemp foods raked in more than $10 million last year, according to, a Web site for the food industry.

Nondairy milks made from hemp nuts could join more traditional hemp products, such as granola and breads. ?I really believe that the hemp seed has the potential to be as big as the soy industry,? said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Not everyone agrees. Richard Rose, a hemp seed importer, thinks Vote Hemp did more harm than good. ?Ironically, Vote Hemp?s suit and injunction against DEA to stop the rule actually re-criminalized hemp, and caused the most severe sales and credibility slump in modern hemp food history,? he said in a recent e-mail exchange from his Amsterdam office. ?It was a pure publicity stunt, from start to finish.?

Rose hinted that hemp food activists had as an ulterior motive the legalization of marijuana, and merely rode the legitimate coattails of the hemp food industry into the courtroom. ?A few hemp activists not actually in the hemp food business saw it as their last chance to build a bigger hemp activist organization.?

If the industry can overcome such obstacles, and separate ?the rope from the dope,? opportunities are great. ?The potential market as a vegan, organic source of omega-3, GLA and ultra-efficient protein is over $500 million,? Rose said. Once the novelty wears off, manufacturers won?t use a food?s hemp ingredients as a marketing strategy. ?The four-letter H-word won?t be on labels as prominently anymore, and ?hemp companies? will transform into ?omega-3 companies,? ? Rose predicted. That?s already happening in Canada, where hemp foods have been legal since 1998. An example is Toronto-based Natural Emphasis, which markets its Fuel Bars as a ?delicious and nourishing? source of energy. The only place you?ll find mention of hemp is in its ingredient statement.

Bronner looks to Canada for a road map of where the industry could go. ?In dollars, the market [in the two countries] is roughly the same, which means it?s about 10 times bigger per capita? in Canada, where hemp has a supportive regulatory environment, he said.

While possession or use of hemp has never been illegal in the United States, many retailers refused to carry products with hemp after the DEA issued its rulings. ?We still find resistance,? said David Neuman, vice president of sales and marketing for British Columbia-based Nature?s Path, which makes cereal and waffles with hemp, as well as non-hemp foods. ?They put enough scare in that big chains question the legality of hemp—what if it does show trace amounts of THC? What if DEA does enforce a ban??

Here, Rose agrees. ?No wholesale buyer wants to be the idiot that got fired for bringing in hemp foods and getting the company in trouble.?

Even among natural foods stores, retailers seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. ?We?re not seeing an overwhelming movement toward the hemp products,? Neuman said. He hopes that with education, retailers will come around. ?There has never been any action against any retailer? who carried hemp products.

Besides, ?It?s a really clean ruling,? said Bronner, emphasizing that the judges, including noted conservative Alex Kozinski, voted unanimously. ?It can?t be characterized as liberal vs. conservative, just common sense vs. absurdity.?

?I don?t think it?s the consumers that are worried,? Neuman added. ?It?s the retailers that have a paranoia.?

Bronner predicted that big manufacturers will show interest in hemp foods once they feel a little more secure in the ban?s defeat. Neuman agreed. ?I think you?ll see a lot of other companies step up to the plate.?

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 4/p. 7, 16

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