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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, January 21, 2002

DEA's hemp hunt is a waste of time

Is it our imagination or has the federal war on drugs taken a strange twist? First there was U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's crusade against Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. That effort requires the Drug Enforcement Administration to scrutinize prescription decisions to determine if a doctor is using them to help a patient die.

Now DEA agents are going after food products that contain hemp seed and oil, including energy bars, bread, granola, ice cream and salad dressing. Citing the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the DEA has proclaimed hemp illegal, and has ordered any food containing the substance off store shelves by next month.

Support for this campaign comes from the Family Research Council, a nonprofit conservative group that lobbies against medical marijuana and same-sex unions, and questions the validity of safe-sex and needle exchange programs.

Presumably, the council is worried that the growing popularity of hemp products will help loosen the gates to legalized marijuana. But though marijuana and hemp are botanical cousins, their uses are entirely different, and so is their narcotic potential.

Levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in industrial hemp is less than 1 percent. The crop is better known for its versatility and nutritional value as a rich source of protein, dietary fiber, minerals, vitamin E, iron and essential fatty acids.

The Hemp Industries Association is appealing the DEA's order before the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Any ruling could have implications for Hawai'i, which is the first state since World War II to grow industrial hemp.

Right now, hemp is being grown only for research purposes in Whitmore Village, thanks to a $200,000 grant from Los Angeles-based Alterna Hair Care. Hemp advocates, including state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, say hemp farming could help revive Hawai'i agriculture. The crop is apparently more versatile than the soybean, cotton plant and Douglas fir combined, and has more than 20,000 uses.

While its long-term viability as a major "industrial" agricultural crop for the Islands remains a question, there's no reason why exploration of its possibilities should be short-circuited.

Ultimately, hemp is no more dangerous than poppy seeds, which contain exceedingly low levels of opiates and have been exempted by Congress from substance-abuse laws. The same lenience should be applied to hemp food products. Let's keep these innocuous products on the shelves.