Makers of hemp products to fight DEA
By Christie Wilson
Neighbor Island Editor
Federal drug enforcement officials are proposing new regulations that would outlaw food and body-care products that contain hemp.
Hemp products are sold in Hawai'i through major retail chains such as The Body Shop, which offers hemp-based soaps and lotions, and smaller stores like Hemp House in Pa'ia, Maui.
Hemp House owner Kathy Barr said she uses hemp oil in her lotions because it is a long-lasting moisturizer that is easily absorbed into the skin.
"It's our best-selling product and to have that cut out would have a big impact on us," she said.
The rules proposed by the Drug Enforcement Administration would allow "the continuation of what have historically been considered legitimate industry uses of hemp such as paper, rope and clothing." However, the line is drawn at products that would introduce even trace amounts of THC into the human body.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the compound that gives marijuana its euphoric effect.
David West, a seed geneticist who oversees Hawai'i's hemp research project, said policymakers fail to recognize the botanical distinctions between industrial hemp and its more potent cannabis cousin, marijuana.
The THC levels in hemp are so low that you can't get high from smoking it. In fact, West said, hemp contains a high level of an "antipsychoactive" compound that blocks the marijuana high.
There are fears the DEA rules would damage a fledgling U.S. industry that is trying to revive itself after being virtually wiped out in the last century by anti-drug policies. Vote Hemp Inc., a nonprofit group that advocates deregulation of industrial hemp, said sales of hemp-based food and body-care products hit $25 million last year, up from $2 million in 1997.
The 300-member Hemp Industries Association, formed in 1994, will organize opposition to the proposed regulations during its convention Thursday through Sunday in Kihei.
Barr, one of nine HIA members in Hawai'i, has a manufacturing operation in Florida that makes hemp-based shampoo, conditioner, body lotions, bath gel and sunscreen under the Hemp House Pa'ia label. She sells her products at her shop and online, and wholesales to Mainland stores.
"It's ridiculous. The amount of THC is not going to make any difference in drug tests or how you feel," she said.
Mike Smith of Eclectacare Botanics on the Big Island is the Hawai'i wholesaler for Hemp-n-Heat, an analgesic gel made in Colorado. He said businesses that deal in hemp products are at the mercy of government rules.
"We do what we can with political-type means," said Smith of opposition to hemp restrictions. "Our company fully believes in the possibility of hemp and hemp products."
Big Island hemp advocate Roger Christie said uncertainty over government acceptance of hemp products makes it difficult for businesses to find investors and to develop markets.
The DEA gave notice in the May 14 Federal Register that it intends to publish the rules regarding hemp, saying they are necessary "in order to protect public health and safety." The rules would clarify that THC is listed as a controlled substance, even if it originates from hemp.
A DEA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said the agency does not comment on proposed rules before they are formally published in the Federal Register. However, the May 14 notice said officials had received numerous inquiries from members of the public about the legal status of products made from hemp. There also are concerns that use of some hemp products could result in positive drug tests.
The HIA and other hemp advocates argue that natural trace amounts of THC pose no health risk; that the DEA does not have the legal authority to issue such rules; and that the rules are outside the scope of the Controlled Substances Act.
Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra said the organization will consider a court challenge if the DEA rules go into effect.
"Even though DEA has proposed these changes, they are not required to follow through and we hope common sense will prevail once they have evaluated our objections," he said.
To address concerns about certain hemp products affecting the results of workplace drug tests, the TestPledge program was developed to assure consumers they would not receive a confirmed positive test for marijuana from normal consumption of hemp foods or use of body-care products.
Participating manufacturers agree to keep THC levels in shelled hemp seed and oil levels below what might trigger a positive drug test, even when these products are consumed in high amounts on a daily basis.
During the Maui convention, West and state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, R-49th (Kailua), will speak at a public event Friday night.
Hawai'i is one of 12 states that have passed legislation supporting research or deregulation of industrial hemp, said HIA spokeswoman Mari Kane. Of those states, only Hawai'i and North Dakota have planted test plots, she said.
In 1999, Thielen co-authored the state law that created the Hawai'i Industrial Hemp Research Project on a quarter-acre plot at Whitmore Village on O'ahu. West runs the project.
Hemp can be economic boon
The DEA set strict guidelines for the Hawai'i research project in exchange for approving the required permits. The requirements included a 10-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and an infrared security system.
With myriad uses such as fabric, fiberboard, paper, rope and fuel, Thielen and others say they believe hemp can be a means of economic development in the Islands, especially since the demise of sugar throughout most of the state.
West said last week that he is continuing his work to collect and breed different varieties of hemp from around the world to develop genetic material for what hemp advocates hope will become a successful agribusiness in the United States.
The project's initial sponsor, Alterna Hair Care, a Los Angeles-based company that uses hemp in its hair shampoos and conditioners, is no longer involved. West declined to reveal the source of financial support, emphasizing the project receives no government financing.
A $5 donation is requested for those attending Friday's public event, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Auntie Aloha Longhouse at the Maui Lu Resort, 575 S. Kihei Road.
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com or (808) 244-4880.