The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Customs Service have declared outright war on Canada’s nascent hemp industry.
In August, US Customs in Detroit seized nearly 20 tons of hemp birdseed and impounded it at a warehouse, citing a new and specious interpretation of US law that allegedly bans any hemp seed that contains even the smallest detectable amount of THC. The seized load was worth tens of thousands of dollars to Canadian hemp company Kenex.
“I have never smoked a joint in my life,” said Jean Laprise, Kenex’s founder. “I have been a farmer for 27 years in Ontario. I am ethical and law-abiding. We have 50 farmers working with us, and 22 other employees of our company. Now we see US officials apparently trying to destroy what we have worked so hard to achieve. Trying to take jobs away from Canadians and Americans engaged in a totally legitimate business enterprise.”
Kenex has been doing hemp research and development since 1995. Company farmers planted their first crop of Canadian hemp in 1998, and 1999 was a booming business year, with increasing international sales of sterilized hemp seeds, hemp oil, hemp seed meal, horse bedding, hulled hemp seed, fibre and other hemp products.
“Their whole action is faulty,” Laprise said. “The amounts of THC they allege are negligible. Many of our products contain zero THC. Everything we have done is lawful. US law does not ban our products.”
Customs also ordered Kenex to bring 17 previously imported shipments of hemp products back to the border, yet Laprise explained that the products have already been sold and consumed.
“US officials are threatening hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines,” said Laprise, “but we cannot get those shipments back. They’ve been used up.”
Laprise said that Canada’s Foreign Affairs Office, along with long-time hemp advocate Senator Lorna Milne, have protested the US actions.
“This is obviously a violation of NAFTA and GATT,” he said. “We would like to resolve this out of court, because lawsuits can cost a million dollars and take several years, but we are considering the option of suing to recover damages.”
With LaPrise frustrated by official stonewalling, Ohio Hempery founder and international cannabis attorney Don Wirtshafter went to Washington, DC, asking members of Congress to tell the DEA to stop interfering with legal trade in hemp goods and manufacture.
“Congressman Ted Strickland from Southeastern Ohio has been very helpful in trying to get answers,” Wirtshafter said. “DEA assured him that they no longer considered bird feed to be a Schedule I controlled substance. I had to prepare a document stating that this was bird feed not intended for human consumption. DEA obfuscated for a while, but then said the shipment would be released. To add insult to injury, Customs is trying to charge Kenex $8000US for storing the shipment.
“The real issue here,” continued Wirtshafter, “is that the DEA is still refusing to allow shipment of any hemp product destined for human consumption. They are trying to kill the hemp food market. I had to pull out of the Baltimore Natural Products Expo because my products contain hemp.”
Francois Lasalle, a spokesperson for the Canadian government’s International Trade division, told Cannabis Culture in late October that the Canadian government is displeased that US officials are interfering with shipment of legal Canadian hemp products.
“Kenex appears to have been complying with all US laws, and that is why we were very eager to intervene in this situation,” said Lasalle. “We spoke to high level members of the US government. We told them that we were concerned about the negative actions taken against a legitimate Canadian exporter. The DEA indicated that it was modifying its policy on hemp imports. Our information is that they rescinded their recall order and agreed to release the embargoed shipment.”
As this article was going to print, the seized birdseed had not been released.
The US actions come at a time of great worry for Laprise and the hemp industry, with Health Canada set to release what Wirtshafter and other hemp industry leaders call an “alarmist and misleading” report about possible health effects of THC contained in hemp cosmetics and foods. Also, the DEA has given no assurances that it will allow future imports of Canadian hemp food products.
“We are building a profitable and ecologically safe industry,” Laprise said. “Thirty thousand acres of hemp were planted in Canada this year. It feels like the US government is robbing us of business opportunities. It is wrong when an administrative agency creates policy that prevents legal international trade. US law enforcement agencies should recognize that this is a beneficial agricultural enterprise. The US public would be much better served by investing drug war money in other areas. Seizing bird food is about as bad as it gets.”
In Ohio, Wirtshafter worries about the hemp industry’s future.
“The DEA embargo against hemp food clearly has to do with urine testing,” he said. “Several military personnel have challenged dirty urine tests by saying that they consumed hemp food products. It’s questionable whether hemp foods contain enough THC to affect a urine test, but for the government to seek to destroy an entire industry to protect an invasion of privacy like urine tests is extremely offensive.”
“I’m looking at my business being destroyed,” said Wirtshafter, who relies on Kenex for hemp seeds and other hemp products. “A war has been declared against us. We need to become very serious, very organized and very professional. We cannot allow this plant or this industry to be held hostage by law enforcement agents or our own stupidity.”