The Canadians who founded Hemp Agro International, a Vancouver and Ontario-based company, thought they were going to make money by helping people and the environment. Instead, company president Grant Sanders told me in January, they found out that the war on drugs is seriously impacting the ability of legitimate, law-abiding Canadian businesspeople to engage in legal business endeavors.
According to Sanders, who spoke to Cannabis Culture just before going into media seclusion, Hemp Agro International was founded in 1991 with a specific purpose in mind: to develop hemp seed cultivation, processing and manufacturing in Latin America.
“We’re a group of serious investors, bankers, botanists and entrepreneurs who decided that a good way to help the Canadian hemp industry and Central America would be to develop a new strain of hemp that would grow well in tropical climates,” Sanders explained. “We hired an agricultural expert named Dr Paul Wylie, and sent him to experiment with hemp seeds from China and Eastern Europe. After long and patient experiments, he came up with a very promising new breed of hemp seed that we call Zolguanica, ’95. We were very excited about this, because tropical countries could be ideal for hemp growing, and they certainly need the injection of clean, sustainable, ecologically-safe enterprises to help their economies and their environment.”
Sanders said it wasn’t easy for seven Canadians to convince the Nicaraguan government to allow experimentation with hemp.
“We spent at least a year giving information to the Nicaraguan authorities,” he said. “They had some objections because they thought that hemp was marijuana. We finally found the right word in their language ? ca?amo ? that we believed communicated to them that this is not a drug crop, this is an industrial, low-THC crop that is easy to grow and has a variety of important uses.”
Sanders’ educational efforts apparently paid off: Nicaraguan authorities granted permission to move forward on the Hemp Agro venture. Soon, the company had hundreds of acres of specially-bred industrial hemp planted in a field near Managua, Nicaragua’s international airport.
“Planes flying overhead could see our crops,” Sanders said with pride. “People who visited the fields saw a sign announcing that this was a joint venture. We had the Nicaraguan and Canadian flags on the sign. We felt that this was going to be the beginning of a marvelous opportunity for trade, cultural exchange and agricultural excellence.”
The collapse of the dream
“Everything was going very well,” Sanders recalls. “We had completed a growing season before Christmas, and our local workers were having a good time harvesting the crops. They were hitting the plants to get the seeds out of them for seed oil, and also separating the stalks into big piles. On the day before Christmas, Dr Wylie took a taxi to the bank where he got $5000 for our workers’ Christmas pay.
“On the way back to the farm, he and his driver encountered a group of armed men who tried to force them off the road. Dr Wylie thought he was being robbed. The taxi was shot with machine guns. Then Wylie was taken away and imprisoned. He didn’t know what he was charged with, and was terrified of what might happen to him.”
Wylie would probably have been even more upset if he had known what was happening to his beloved hemp field.
“A group of black-hooded soldiers moved in and captured the field,” Sanders says. “They poured oil on it and lit everything on fire. We lost all the fruits of our labour. Then they cordoned off the field and put it under guard. Nobody is even allowed to inspect it. They took the money from Wylie, so our workers didn’t get their Christmas pay.”
Sanders said that Nicaraguan government officials who had been enthusiastic in their outspoken support for Hemp Agro suddenly turned traitor, as local newspapers whipped up a jingoistic storm of anger against what government officials now alleged was a multi-million dollar marijuana-growing operation.
“They accused us of the most ridiculous things,” said Sanders bitterly. “Crack dealers, thousands of pounds of marijuana, international drug criminals. Everybody except our workers seemed to turn against us. All the allegations are totally false and totally ludicrous. There was not even one ounce of marijuana in that field. Not one. No buds. We are a professional company with a website (http://www.hempagro.com), who publicly announced our presence, got approval from government authorities, and conducted business in full view of everyone. For them to say we were involved in drugs, well, that is slander and defamation of character.”
Previous DEA interference
Sanders and his business partners investigated the bust, remembering that the heavy hand of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and other American agencies had attacked the Hemp Agro venture long before it went up in smoke the day before Christmas.
“I think we were a little naive about the way the US government works,” Sanders admitted. “We had a big warning about this when US Customs and the DEA held up a cargo of Chinese seeds that we were trans-shipping from China through the port in California at Long Beach. They jacked up our cargo and spent all this time examining our seeds, as if you can tell from a seed whether the plant is going to be marijuana or hemp.
“We obtained their internal memos where they say ‘this is a very hot shipment that we have to watch.’ Then, they decided that these seeds were hemp seeds and allowed the shipment to go on to Nicaragua. We felt that this harassment was in a way a kind of blessing, because it gave our seeds an official stamp of approval that they were hemp.”
Official approval notwithstanding, Sanders says he has been told that in the eyes of a DEA field operative in Nicaragua, the officially classified hemp seeds had somehow produced officially classified “marijuana.”
“The best we can tell is that some DEA agent went out and examined the plants and found resin glands. They listed the THC content as 1.6%, which is very little and is under the limit set by some other countries for industrial hemp. Somebody could smoke an acre of our crop and get a big headache instead of a buzz, but this low percentage was apparently the justification for the DEA to tell the Nicaraguans that we were growing a drug crop,” Sanders says.
Don Wirtshafter, an American attorney and founder of the Ohio Hempery, was asked by Hemp Agro to go to Nicaragua to assess the situation and assist Dr Wylie, who is still imprisoned.
Wirtshafter says he found Wylie in conditions far less pleasant than those that would be endured by prisoners in most North American jails.
“He is being kept in a prison that is perched on the edge of a volcano,” Wirtshafter reported. “It’s a great view, but he can’t see it. None of the prisoners can, because they are housed in dungeons underground. None of the rights we have [in America]apply there. You’re guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent. You have no rights to an attorney. They gave me 15 minutes to talk to him. They don’t give him the opportunity to assist in his own defense or to even hear proceedings in English. He probably would have starved to death by now if his wife was not there to bring him food.”
When Wirtshafter went to court to testify on Wylie’s behalf, he was himself treated miserably.
“I consider myself an expert witness in matters related to hemp,” Wirtshafter said, “and I presented a totally credible set of research articles and testimony to the court proving that Hemp Agro was growing industrial hemp, not marijuana. But they were hostile toward me, and treated me in an insulting way. I just found out that they have thrown out all my testimony, because they claim I am not an objective source. I think that politically they are under the influence of our [American] government, and they are out to get these guys.”
According to Wirtshafter, “getting these guys” means that Nicaragua can probably force Canada to extradite all Hemp Agro partners to Nicaragua, to face possible 25 year terms in prison.
“I’m not sure that Canada can refuse an extradition request under the agreements they’ve signed with Nicaragua,” the activist attorney speculated. “Nicaragua has probably given Canada everybody Canada’s asked for, and if the president of Nicaragua asks Canada to send Hemp Agro personnel, I think they may have to do it. We have been waiting for the Canadian embassy to stand up and protest what has happened to Dr Wylie, but all they’ve said so far is that they are only obligated to make sure his rights are being respected.”
Sanders told me that he is of course very worried about the possibility that he and the other Hemp Agro partners may face the same fate that has befallen their comrade Wylie.
“What really angers me about this is that everybody knew this was a legitimate crop,” he said. “So why did the Nicaraguan government turn against it? We look at all the ‘coincidences’ in what happened between the US government and Nicaragua just before the burning, and it looks to a lot of people like a clear pattern of influence. It seems logical to surmise that the US was offering lots of money so Nicaragua could rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch; they made the giving of that money contingent upon Nicaragua’s increased assistance with American anti-drug efforts. Maybe destroying our field was a test to see if the Nicaraguans would follow Washington’s orders.”
USA in Central America
Of course, the history of US involvement in Latin America only serves to bolster Sanders’ claims. Under President Ronald Reagan, who now can’t even remember his own name due to Alzheimer’s Disease, the US in the 1980’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting a civil war against the duly-elected Sandinista communist government.
American involvement in other Latin American countries, such as Chile, El Salvador and Mexico, often consists of assassinations, subversion of democratic principles, use of poisons on coca and cannabis plants, brutalization of indigenous peoples, CIA importation of cocaine into the United States with profits used to support US backed insurrections, and an overall disrespect for international law and human rights.
The disrespect that Latin Americans, Wirtshafter, Hemp Agro and Dr Wylie experienced was also evident as I tried to get the US government to comment on its involvement in the Hemp Agro debacle.
I made numerous calls to the Washington DC headquarters of the DEA, finally reaching the public relations unit. Then I was hung up on twice after being on hold for at least ten minutes. I called back, and was put on hold for another fifteen minutes.
When I finally reached DEA spokesperson “Rojene Waite,” she said she’d been unable to take my call because she had been “busy researching a cold remedy being sold on the Internet.”
“I’m trying to get the DEA’s side of the story regarding Hemp Agro in Nicaragua,” I said.
“The US Information Service in Nicaragua is the only office that can comment,” she said. “I cannot comment and I don’t have their number.”
“Look,” I replied, “do you realize how uncooperative this sounds to me? The DEA is accused of interfering with the internal agricultural affairs of a foreign country, resulting in the imprisonment of a Canadian national and other negative effects on what we have been told is a legitimate Canadian company. Yet, the DEA refuses to comment, and you don’t even have the phone number of the people who can comment?”
“Don’t go there,” Waite replied in an annoyed manner. “Anybody who has any brains could look up the number of the embassy in Managua. I don’t have the time to do it.”
“Well I don’t have any brains, and I’ve spent lots of time on hold and getting hung up on by your agency,” I replied. “I think that since your agency is directly involved in what happened, you should have the professionalism to provide the press with an explanation or at least with the contact name and number of somebody who can provide one. Isn’t that what a press officer is for?”
Silence, then Muzak. I am on hold again.
Waite comes back on the line and gives me what she says is the number of the US embassy in Nicaragua. Then she hangs up. So much for being a polite public servant.
US denies involvement
The person I reached at the US embassy in Managua was much more pleasant and forthcoming than Waite had been. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the spokesperson said: “DEA had very minimal involvement in this situation.”
“Let me give you some context on this,” the spokesperson said. “As part of this hemisphere’s anti-drug efforts, DEA has had a field office in Nicaragua for just over one year. DEA has a good relationship with the Nicaraguan government. This involvement started in 1997, when Nicaragua requested a DEA agent be placed here. We had a big press conference to introduce him to everybody so they wouldn’t think he was robocop or anything. He is here to work with them, and he never acts unilaterally.
“There is a severe misperception that DEA made this Hemp Agro thing happen,” the spokesperson said. “At one point, the agent was asked to come in and look at the field. He went and made an inspection in the field. There were no lab tests, no microscopes used by him, as some have alleged. He then provided his opinion as to what those plants were. I cannot disclose his opinion. Other tests were conducted by the Nicaraguan government. I categorically deny that DEA instigated what happened. It is absolutely not true.
“We are surprised to hear people alleging that we caused the Nicaraguan government to do this. We are very aware of their sovereignty. That is why we are here, to help them protect themselves from narcotraffickers who are exploiting their country. You look back on October 30, when the flooding happened, and we were the first government to provide aid. There is no agreement that says we will only provide aid if Nicaragua torches hemp fields. We have been here to help them all along. Our help is not contingent upon them helping us.
“We are not changing any policies or procedures because of this situation,” the spokesperson continued. “We have no culpability in what happened. All we do is share information with the Nicaraguan government. This was their decision under their laws.”
Debts, dreams, determination
Regardless of the controversial differences of opinion about what happened to Hemp Agro and why, it’s virtually certain that Sanders and his associates were on track to create a vibrant, new hemp industry in the tropics. The company’s innovative manufacturing and marketing plan is shown in a website flow chart that lists an impressive array of hemp products including food, fibre, and building materials.
“This plant has no wasted parts. Everything it produces can be used for something. We even found that the seed hulls can be used. We knew that hemp would be especially useful for countries like Nicaragua. They had been hard hit by the hurricane and by the US wars, and they were going to cut down their trees to build places for people. We showed them how to use hemp, how to bring employment to their workers, how to grow a crop without using lots of chemical garbage on it. It was a totally positive situation.”
But now the positive situation has gone to hell, leaving Wylie and his partners with debts, broken dreams and fear.
Wirtshafter, himself a veteran of drug war persecution who is increasingly involved in Canada’s production of hemp seed oil, offered an intriguing explanation for why America tried to kill Hemp Agro.
“I think the DEA knows that as long as Canadians are limited to using inferior seed from Europe that they cannot get their growing situation revved up where it needs to be,” he said. “With Hemp Agro’s development of a tropical variety of hemp, the plant could have spread everywhere and hemp would be a dominant world crop. The DEA just does not want to see that.
Sanders remains defiant.
“We went through an excruciating process of being investigated for possible criminal intent before they ever allowed us to grow down there. We proved time and again that this was an industrial crop. Now, we are fighting for what is right. I don’t care how much money or time I have to spend. We are going to free Paul. We will be totally exonerated and are expecting a full apology. And we will never give up on our determination to help Central America with hemp.”