The Bush administration's attempt to expand the nation's drug wars to foods and oils containing hemp was shot down Friday by a federal appeals court, which said hemp doesn't get people high and hasn't been outlawed by Congress.
Hemp industry revived with victory over DEA Bush push to expand drug wars shot down by Ninth Circuit rulingBob Egelko, Kathleen Seligman, Chronicle Staff Writers
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed sales of hemp foods to resume in March 2002, five months after the Drug Enforcement Administration announced an abrupt nationwide ban. On Friday, the court said the DEA had no authority to reclassify hemp as a dangerous drug without first showing that it has a "high potential for abuse.''
The DEA hasn't tried to prove hemp is dangerous but instead argued that consumption of hemp seeds and oil can be outlawed because they contain traces of THC, the active substance in marijuana.
But the court said that under federal law "nonpsychoactive hemp is explicitly excluded from the definition of marijuana.''
DEA spokesman Bill Grant declined comment on the ruling, which could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, it's a relief for the hemp food industry, which saw stores pull its products off shelves in 2001 and is struggling to regain lost ground.
"The market is going to blow wide open,'' said David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps in Escondido (San Diego County) and chairman of the Hemp Industry Association's food and oils committee. His company makes a snack bar that Bronner hopes will now find its way into mainstream stores.
Lenda Hand, owner of Humboldt Hemp Foods, said her sales dropped dramatically in the past few years. Her company still sells roasted hemp bean coffee but has stopped marketing organic blue tortilla chips and cake mixes containing hemp seeds because of a decline in sales.
"Stores dropped their accounts,'' she said. "People were afraid to carry (the products). And then my enthusiasm waned. It was very depressing. Now I'll gear up again.''
Hemp foods, sold mainly in natural food and health food stores, include granola, waffles, energy and snack bars, chips and oil supplements.
As an industrial product, hemp can be traced back to colonial times in America and was grown by George Washington to make rope. The plant was a valuable agricultural crop until the anti-drug fervor of the 1930s, which resulted in the 1937 federal law banning marijuana.
Hemp can no longer be grown legally in the United States, but is imported legally, largely from Canada. The DEA's October 2001 ban did not apply to nonfood products like clothing and paper. However, Bronner said the ban cut off the supply of hemp oil that his company used in its soaps.
In defending its rules before the court, the DEA argued that it was authorized to ban consumption of any product containing THC. But the court said federal law prohibits only synthetic THC and natural marijuana.
To reclassify hemp as a dangerous drug, the court said, the DEA must make findings, supported by evidence, that it has a high potential for abuse and cannot be used safely under medical supervision.
The DEA won't even try to meet that standard, predicted Bronner, the Escondido businessman.
"What's the abuse potential of hemp seeds and oil? None,'' he said. "It's like eating a poppy seed bagel.''