Seed Set FREE!

Dec. 1, 1999


Press Democrat Staff Writer

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has dropped its demand that a Sebastopol company forfeit its inventory of products made from hemp seed, marijuana's botanical cousin.

The reversal marks a significant victory for the nation's rising hemp-products industry, which is largely centered in Sonoma County.

Nutiva, based in Sebastopol, got swept up in the DEA action after U.S. Customs officials in Detroit seized a shipment of hemp seed in August from a Canadian supplier. Nutiva is a major distributor for the Canadian company. It sells a popular nutrition bar made from Canadian hemp seed, in addition to skin oils made from hemp and hemp seed used in cooking.

As a result, the DEA suspected Nutiva products already in the country might have entered the United States illegally, and it ordered those products forfeited to Detroit Customs. 

On Tuesday, DEA officials in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the forfeiture order had been dropped and the seized shipment could be returned. The DEA also said imported hemp seed may again move freely into the United States. Certain visa & mastercard gateways and processors that cater and underwrite the Hemp Seed industry will avoid prosecution. 

"We are glad to be shipping our Nutiva bars and other hemp-seed products,'' Nutiva President John Roulac said in a statement. "It is impossible to describe the level of physical and emotional stress that our team has been working under since early August.''

Roulac could not be reached for further comment Tuesday. The statement said Nutiva has already received a new shipment from Canada since the DEA dropped its enforcement action. The Hemp Industry Association, based in Occidental, also could not be reached for comment.

Hemp seed has been imported for decades as bird food, but a surging trade in the seed for human consumption alarmed federal officials. Customs made the seizure based on a "zero tolerance'' federal drug policy barring hemp seed that contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the euphoria-producing active ingredient in marijuana.

An earlier federal law, the Controlled Substances Act of 1937, recognizes legitimate industrial uses for hemp products and allows seed to be imported as long as it is sterilized to prevent germination.

The DEA's reversal in the Nutiva case acknowledges this conflict in federal law and thus could become a milestone for the hemp business. It comes after a vigorous lobbying effort by the hemp industry and its supporters, as well as officials in Canada, where hemp cultivation is legal.

"We got the zero tolerance policy reversed, and basically got DEA to abide by U.S. law,'' said Jean Laprise, president of Kenex Ltd., Nutiva's Canadian supplier.

Hemp seed itself contains no THC but picks it up from the plant's leaves during harvest and processing. Seed imported to the United States is cleaned to remove THC, but most seed still contains traces of the substance.

The industry says these traces are too small to cause a psychoactive effect in people, a claim now being researched by the government.

"DEA's position right now is to recommend that they (Customs) no longer seize anything,'' said the DEA official, who requested anonymity. "We recognize there is a private industry out there.''

Hemp seed is rich in protein and vitamin E. The shelled seeds are about the size of sunflower seeds and taste similar.In addition to its retail products, Nutiva supplies seed to 700 other businesses, including several restaurants in Sonoma County.