Pro-Hemp Groups Hot Over Drug Czar's 'Zero Tolerance' Policy February 11, 2000

11:57 a.m. ET (1657 GMT) By Julia Campbell

Retired farmer Jacob Hughes Graves III remembers when the U.S. government was begging his father to grow acres of industrial hemp during World War II.

The Navy desperately needed the fiber for ropes, sailcloth and parachutes. Photo caption: Farmers are pushing to make it once again legal to grow hemp

"We were working like the devil," said Graves, who was 16 in 1942 and helped his father on the family's eastern Kentucky farmland called Leafland Farms. A publicity campaign called "Hemp for Victory" encouraged all farmers to take up the cause.

Five decades later, Graves, now 73, couldn't grow hemp if he wanted to. After World War II, when the demand for industrial hemp subsided, the government reverted back to a sweeping 1937 drug law and effectively banned production of the crop -- a poorer relation to its potent cousin, marijuana.

Text insert: "The drug czar is creating this hysteria against a crop that wont get anyone high" -- Cynthia Thielen

Today, there is a movement underway among farmers and state lawmakers to make it legal once again to grow the crop, which is harvested in more than 30 other countries worldwide. In the last decade, industrial hemp has become an increasingly popular resource and is found in clothing, flavored tortilla chips, a moisturizer from The Body Shop and even car parts.

In the past year, nine states -- Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Virginia -- passed pro-hemp bills to study the potential for production of the crop. The first U.S. test crop was planted in Hawaii in December.

Opposing the Hemp Movement

The movement, however, faces tough opposition. Law enforcement officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, under the leadership of White House "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey, argue that industrial hemp, which contains trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- the psychoactive agent in marijuana -- would be damaging to the war on drugs.

Photo caption: After World War II, the gov't effectively banned production of hemp

"(McCaffrey) is for science - not this cutesy, backdoor approach to legalization (of marijuana)," said Bob Weiner, a spokesman for McCaffrey. "We are doing everything we can to drive drug use down ... we don't want to screw up the equation in the other direction."

But that's just one side of the story. Industrial hemp, say its advocates, is easy to grow, requires little pesticide use and even helps rejuvenate the soil for other crops. And despite a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study that concluded that industrial hemp would not be economically viable, farmers say an alternative crop like hemp could help offset major losses in recent years.

Federal officials argue that legalizing industrial hemp would send a mixed message to children and affect drug testing of suspects who could claim that they had been eating hemp products. It could also confuse law enforcement agents looking to eradicate pot fields, the officials say.

Industrial hemp and marijuana are two different varieties of the plant species, cannabis sativa, and look very much alike. Hemp plants are grown taller and closer together in a thick mass, whereas pot plants are grown spaced apart so that their leaves and buds have a chance to develop. Unlike marijuana, hemp has no psychoactive effect if ingested or smoked because it generally contains less than 1 percent THC.

Photo caption: Farmers say an alternative crop like hemp could help offset major losses in recent years

Yet, hemp continues to be associated with its much-smoked cousin. And since Canada legalized the farming of industrial hemp in 1998, federal officials have become increasingly concerned with the importation of industrial hemp into the country. Last August, after years of allowing industrial hemp to be imported by basically overlooking the fact that it contains a trace of THC, U.S. customs officials stopped a shipment of 39,000 pounds of birdseed made from sterilized hemp seeds from entering the country in Detroit.

The Ontario-based Kenex, Ltd. had shipped the birdseed with a manifest that listed THC as an ingredient. (Canada requires that all industrial hemp crops contain less than .3 percent THC). In January, drug and customs officials, under the guidance of McCaffrey, declared a zero-tolerance policy for importing products containing any amount of THC would be strictly enforced. Hemp shipments containing any amount of THC are now subject to seizure, federal officials said.

The result has been a growing battle between advocates for the hemp industry, here and in Canada, and government officials in Washington. Drug policy officials met as recently as last week to discuss the issue with Canadian trade and agriculture officials. Weiner, the drug czar's spokesman, declined to provide details of the meeting, which involved "mid-level" officials from both governments.

Rodney Moore, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said the Canadian officials met with American drug policy officials to express concern over the zero-tolerance policy and its impact on Canadian exporters of industrial hemp."The dialogue will continue and we will see how it develops," Moore said.

Here in the U.S., Kathleen Chippi, whose Boulder, Co. Hemp Company, sells Heavenly Hemp Tortilla Chips to health food stores, says the new stance could threaten her growing hemp products business. She will order a shipment of hemp seeds from a Canadian company next week -- but she isn't sure she will receive it. "We have been so hard-core about abiding by the law because we know as a hemp company that we face such scrutiny," Chippi said. "Even though we are abiding by (the law), we know that at any moment, the drug czar could change his mind."

The Hawaii Experiment

In Hawaii, lawmakers like Cynthia Thielen, the assistant Republican floor leader in the Hawaii House of Representatives are hoping that drug officials will recommend a change in position and support industrial hemp farming in the islands and elsewhere. "The government is going to have to stop preventing farmers from being able to grow the crop," Thielen said. "Too many farmers are in jeopardy of losing their farms."

Hawaii lawmakers, including the state's governor, late last year approved a measure that would allow state scientists to study the potential of introducing industrial hemp as a seed crop in Hawaii. On Dec. 14, declared Industrial Hemp Day in the state, a University of Hawaii scientist planted seeds for the first test crop. The field is secreted away on Oahu and surrounded by a 10-foot fence with razor wire, a requirement ordered by DEA officials who approved a permit for the crop. The half-acre plot also has a 24-hour alarm system to keep out intruders.

The project is funded by a $200,000 grant from Alterna, which manufactures a shampoo containing hemp oil.

Text insert: "We are doing everything we can to drive drug use down ... we don't want to screw up the equation in the other direction" -- Bob Weiner

The lawmakers, Thielen said, hope industrial hemp could someday - if approved by the federal government - replace the state's dying sugarcane industry, which has fallen flat during Hawaii's failure to climb out of an economic recession. Thielen puts much of the blame for the resistance on McCaffrey, who is the nation's top illegal-drug fighter. "The drug czar is creating this hysteria against a crop that won't get anyone high," Thielen said. "It doesn't make any sense."

The government's stance against industrial hemp has also helped make the plant more appealing, said John Howell, the owner of a hemp marketing firm and former publisher of Hemp Times, a New York-based newspaper for the small industry. "There is a mystique and an allure and a giggle factor to it," Howell said.

But that is precisely why some officials don't want hemp legalized. In a recent letter to a constituent in New Hampshire, Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) wrote that hemp products are "marketed heavily to young people with clothing and products featuring the marijuana leaf."

But those advocates argue that lawmakers need to look beyond recent history to a time when hemp was a staple crop in the U.S. In the nation's early history, the advocates say, colonists grew hemp and used it to pay taxes; the Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp; and Thomas Jefferson called it "the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country."

"If they think this is some kind of hippie movement, you can tell (the federal officials) that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were hemp farmers," State Rep. Thielen said. "And they can put that in the their pipe and smoke it."