DRCNet Interview: David Bronner 4/18/03

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Note: This interview was conducted before the Ninth Circuit ruled again to block the DEA rule pending its final decision.

The US hemp industry is under frontal attack from misguided drug warriors. At immediate issue is a DEA "final rule" that would effectively bar the consumption, possession or sale of foods that containing hemp oils. Under the proposed rule, the presence of even infinitesimal amounts of THC in foods containing hemp would make them Schedule 1 controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act.

The hemp industry, unsurprisingly, is not going down without a fight. Having battled the DEA over the issue for nearly a decade, the industry has now challenged the proposed rule in the federal courts. DRCNet spoke Monday with a leader in the effort, David Bronner, current president of the famous Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps (http://www.drbronner.com) and chairman of the Hemp Industry Association's Food and Oil Committee (http://www.thehia.org).

Week Online: The DEA's new final rule on hemp foods is set to go into effect on Monday. What would happen to the US hemp industry if this rule stands?

David Bronner: The effect would be drastic and dramatically bad. We don't see the DEA arresting people for having chips made with hemp seed oil, but we do anticipate the DEA attempting to shut down companies one by one as it applies its analytical protocols to different products that contain infinitesimal traces of THC. It is also likely that US Customs will make hemp oil seizures at the border, thus preventing US manufacturers from obtaining the raw materials they need.

This will even affect companies like Dr. Bronner's, which does not manufacture hemp foods. The DEA has exempted shampoos, soaps and other cosmetics, but we will still have to reformulate our products because we won't be able to import the hemp oil we need. The DEA is being tricky here; on the one hand, it exempts our products; on the other hand, it stops the ingredients we need at the border. We will take a significant financial hit. It is not just the US hemp industry that will be affected. Many Canadian hemp growers and manufacturers do more than half their business with US clients and retail outlets, and they too will suffer.

WOL: What is the hemp industry doing to avoid this?

Bronner: We were able to get a Stay to block the implementation of the DEA's interim "interpretive rule" in 2001, and we've filed an urgent motion to Stay the implementation of this "final rule." The DEA responded to our motion last week, and we have to file a reply to the DEA today (Monday). We were able to get a Stay on the "interpretive rule," so we are confident we can get the court to grant a Stay this time. If that doesn't happen, we will appeal to the US 9th Circuit en banc to overrule this panel. And if that doesn't happen, we could well go broke before we have a chance to win in court.

But our effort consists of more than just legal maneuvering. We are attempting to educate the press -- and it has been difficult because the DEA chose a time when the bombs were falling on Iraq to announce its "final rule" -- so there has pretty much been a media blackout on the issue. Also, the press is, frankly, a little confused by the different rules and bureaucratic games. So we are attempting to gain some press attention with another round of DEA hemp food taste tests like we did in December 2001. We will be at DEA buildings around the country on Monday handing out hemp foods to DEA employees, talking up the virtues of omega-3 in hemp oil as a nutritional substance.

We will also have poppy seed bagels and orange juice on hand to point out the absurdity of this rule. The bagels contain traces of opiates and the orange juice contains alcohol traces, and the government has no problem with that, but under these rules, any amount of product with detectable traces of THC is a Schedule 1 controlled substance. And what's worse is that the federal guidelines include carrying weight, so that a one-pound bag of hemp oil-based chips becomes one pound of THC, much like how they would include the weight of the sugar cube in calculating the amount of LSD.

But it gets even more ludicrous. Under the DEA's conversion scheme, one pound of THC equals 167 pounds of marijuana. So a pallet of hemp oil-based potato chips in a food warehouse suddenly becomes the equivalent of thousands of pounds of marijuana. Overnight, hemp food manufacturers become drug kingpins facing multiple life sentences.

We are also working on Congress. Now isn't a very good time for that, but we have been getting letters in, and we are working to set up meetings next week on the Hill. Congress tends to defer to the courts on this, so if we win the Stay, that will be a powerful message to legislators. A successful Stay is also a good indication that we will win in the end, and that could really open things up. If that turns out to be the case, the DEA's credibility on hemp will take a big hit in the eyes of Congress. The DEA has been really aggressive in pushing its new rules and countering our lobbying efforts. If they lose on this, we will be much, much closer to legal hemp in this country.

WOL: Why do the DEA and the US government take such a hard line on hemp?

Bronner: The original justification was because it potentially interfered with drug testing; the argument was that hemp oil-based foods would provide false positive results. But that is really a bogus issue at this point. Through strict regulations in Canada and our own Test Pledge program (http://www.testpledge.com), we have solved the problem of false positives. It's not really an issue anymore, but it is interesting to compare the government's response to hemp oil foods with its response to poppy seed bagels. On the poppies, the government actually raised the drug testing threshold on urine tests to accommodate the opium resin in poppy seeds. But we solved the testing problem on our own, and the government ignores it. For the DEA, anything related to cannabis is part of a culture war and they must fight it. They can't handle the truth that industrial hemp cannabis would have great economic and ecological potential. That would threaten their entire propaganda campaign, that cannabis is a plant with roots in hell and no redeeming value. That's wrongheaded, that's crazy.

WOL: How does US policy toward hemp production and hemp products compare with other countries?

Bronner: Our policies are absolutely backward and horrible. Pretty much every other modern industrialized country recognizes the difference between industrial hemp, which is non-psychoactive and bred for fiber, and smokeable cannabis. It's like the difference between a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard. Both are members of the same family, but it is impossible to confuse the two. In Europe, Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand, industrial hemp is grown under a straightforward regulatory regime. It's not a problem. No one tries to smoke it. And police in those countries seem to be able to tell the difference. On the issue, the US is pretty much isolated, a lone island of ignorance.

But we could train even US police to tell the difference. Hemp grows tall and thin, with about 100 stalks per square foot. Marijuana grows squat and bushy, with about one plant per square foot. As my uncle says, it's simple: "Look up, that's hemp; look down, that's pot." And, of course, while police here argue that hemp fields could hide marijuana grows, that's absurd. With regulated hemp fields subject to inspection, with GPS coordinates and random visits like in Canada, and with the fear of cross-pollination, a hemp field is the last place someone would choose to grow marijuana.

WOL: Although the US hemp industry is under attack, it is a legitimate business in the US. How does the industry organize to protect its interests?

Bronner: We have the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), which is basically our trade organization. It is an umbrella group for manufacturers, distributors, retailers, legislators and activists. Our lobbying arm is Vote Hemp (http://www.VoteHemp.com), and the two groups work very closely together. This is an industry that had about $250 million in global sales last year, with about $150 million of it in the US. Here in the US, about $90 million of that is for hemp fiber, twine and jewelry, with a rapidly growing market in auto parts where hemp fiber is replacing fiberglass. We think this is really going to take off. It was pioneered by the Germans, but is now being used by Ford here in this country.

Hemp oil-based shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, and the like -- companies like the Body Shop and Dr. Bronner's -- account for maybe another $40 million in sales, and hemp oil-based foods account for maybe $6-10 million per year. But that figure should be ten times bigger. There are many, many people interested in the nutritional value of hemp foods, but all are holding off until the regulatory situation is cleared up. This market is severely stunted now and until we get the DEA out of our business.

Disclosure: DRCNet has received financial compensation from Dr. Bronner's for an upcoming hemp food-related promotion.

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Issue #283, 4/18/03 DRCNet Interview: David Bronner | Ninth Circuit Court Blocks DEA Hemp Rule | The Week Online Still Needs Your Help! | Newsbrief: California Appeals Court Just Says No to "Hippie Profiling" | Newsbrief: House GOP Leadership Gives Cold Shoulder to "Truth in Trials" Medical Marijuana Bill | Newsbrief: Indiana Ponders Early Prisoner Release, Drug Possessors Included | Newsbrief: Legal Swiss Marijuana to Be Heavily Taxed, Black Market Profits Will Instead Be Windfall for Government | Newsbrief: CIA Propaganda Radio Rap Song Links Saddam to Demon Weed | Media Scan: Cato, Sojourners, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Criminal Justice Journalists | Harm Reduction Jobs in Pittsburgh and New York | The Reformer's Calendar
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