Pubdate: Fri, 27 Apr 2001 Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA) Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. Contact: Website:


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms may be loose on language, but it's getting tough on drugs.

In a reversal of an earlier label approval, the agency has told Frederick Brewing of Maryland it can no longer call its popular dark ale Hempen Ale.

The beer is made with hemp seeds, like those used to grow marijuana. The seeds are sterile, however, and contain no THC, the psychotropic substance that gets users stoned.

Mostly, the seeds are a gimmick, though brewers say they do add body to ales.

ATF had approved Frederick's pot-leafed label in 1997. It quickly became one of the brewery's most popular beers. Last spring, however, the agency did an about-face.

In a little publicized order, the agency said that while brewers could continue to use hemp in alcoholic beverages, they could no longer advertise that fact. That includes any reference to word "hemp" in a brand name.

According to the order, brewers were forbidden to use "depictions, graphics, designs, devices, puffery, statements, slang, representations, etc., implying or referencing the presence of hemp, marijuana, any other controlled substance, or any pyschoactive effects."

Al Spinelli, general manager of Frederick Brewing, said the brewery was permitted to continue produce the ale until it runs out of packaging materials that it had purchased before the ban. He said Hempen Ale should be completely off the shelves sometime this summer.

Frederick - which had been recently purchased by a holding group called Snyder International - didn't put up a fight. "Our position is that Hempen Ale is not in our long-term portfolio, so I can't say it really bothered us a lot that they came down with this ruling," Spinelli said.

An attorney familiar with the case said, however, "If someone wanted to challenge the policy, I would be extremely confident they could challenge it on First Amendment issues. You look at what the regulators are doing, and I say it's flatly illegal. But it'll cost you six figures to beat it."

So why did ATF reverse itself?

Complaints from a single consumer group, a agency spokeswoman said. "There was a feeling that the labeling could be interpreted that this was liquid THC," she said.

Outsiders accuse the agency of giving in to anti-drug zealots.

Larry Lesterud, who makes Hemp Ale for Humboldt Brewing in California, believes the crackdown was prompted by the White House.

Last year, his shipment of hemp seeds was halted at the border, he said, by the Office of National Drug Control Policy - the White House drug czar.

"They're just trying to starve the country out of hemp products," said Lesterud. He said he can still legally bottle his Hemp Ale as long as he doesn't sell it across state lines.

"This is the White House saying we don't want hemp in America. They're really quite fascist about it."