Law

Contentious crop

Hemp farmers get caught in the war against drugs

Andrew Clark October 18 1999
Law

Contentious crop

Hemp farmers get caught in the war against drugs

Andrew Clark October 18 1999

Contentious crop

Law

Hemp farmers get caught in the war against drugs

On Aug. 9, U.S. Customs Service officials in Detroit made their move, seizing 18,000 kg—of Canadian birdseed. It was a simple case of zero tolerance. The seed came from industrial hemp, which—like marijuana—is a variety of the species Cannabis sativa. Although it is illegal to grow industrial hemp in most of the United States, its has always been legal to import it. On the other hand, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will not allow any substance containing even trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive agent in marijuana, into the United States.

So on the DEA’s instructions, customs locked the birdseed up. Caught in the middle are farmers like Jean Laprise, president of Chatham, Ont.-based Kenex Ltd., the company that grew the hemp and sent it south. If the U.S. zero tolerance policy on industrial hemp continues, he says, the company’s future is bleak. “I’ll tell you right now,” says Laprise,

“that would break us.”

Across Canada, close to 700 farmers have jumped on the hemp bandwagon since Ottawa legalized it as a crop last year for the first time since 1938. With 14,000 hectares already devoted to hemp, they are counting on continued sales to U.S. manufacturers who use the versatile, ecologically friendly plant to produce dozens of products, from shampoo and cooking oil to paper and clothing. Laprise says Kenex, a large farming operation that has invested millions of dollars in its new crop, has been shipping hemp to the United States for almost a year. Suddenly, following the birdseed seizure and a U.S. Customs order recalling 17 other Kenex hemp shipments, the company faces $700,000 in fines and an uncertain future. “The

DEA is trying to destroy whatever Canadian companies it can,” says 45-year-old Laprise, “so they can discourage U.S. farmers and companies from manufacturing or selling hemp products.”

What frustrates Laprise and other growers is that their product has no narcotic value. The birdseeds THC content of a barely measurable 0.0014 per cent compares with the minimum four per cent—and up to 20 per cent—found in marijuana. The DEA’s unexpected deci-

sion to crack down on hemp imports almost a year and a half after the market opened has stunned Canadian farmers and the many American manufacturers of hemp products. Kenex, which has laid off four of its 24 employees since the seizure, is planning to file a claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing that U.S. officials are interfering with international trade. And a Sebastopol, Calif., company, Nutiva, which uses Canadian hemp to make a popular line of granola bars, says it has lost $60,000 since its supplies were cut off. It and other U.S. manufacturers are contemplating a class-action suit against the U.S.

government to have the DEA back off.

Like Laprise, most of Canadas hemp farmers turned to the plant in the belief it was a durable rotation crop with a proven market in the United States. “It’s not hard to grow,” says Erling Olsen, who planted eight hectares on his farm in Warner, Alta. For Kenex, hemp has turned out to be more profitable than many of its traditional crops, including corn, soybeans and wheat.

Hemp products have caught on quickly in the United States. Bud Sholts, chairman of the North American Industrial Hemp Council Inc., estimates the business to be worth $225 million annually. Under constant pressure from U.S. farmers, several states— including Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota—have passed laws allowing hemp crops. But Nutiva’s president, John W Roulac, says the DEA is trying to quash the industry. The agency, he says, is trying to protect annual handing of millions of dollars for cannabis eradication, 98 per cent of which, he maintains, is spent burning “ditch weed,” a free-growing strain of industrial hemp with no narcotic properties. “They are trying to cut off our supply so there won’t be a hemp market,” says Roulac. “Six months from now, Canadian farmers will have warehouses bulging full of hemp seed and fibre that can’t be sold in America.”

A DEA spokesman says the agency became concerned about hemp shipments once it learned that seeds were being used to create edible products such as granola bars, beer and cooking oil. “What happens to the people,” he asks, “who are using hemp oil to cook andTHC turns up in their drug test?” In the short term, Roulac says, publicity surrounding the birdseed seizure has helped increase awareness of hemp products. But Laprise, now a reluctant champion of the hemp industry, worries that his investment will go up in smoke. “We’re not a group of activists by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “We’re just Canadian farmers who think we’ve found a nice rotation crop.”

Andrew Clark