|Press Democrat Article
Hemp bar company under gun from DEA
Sebastopol firm fighting fed order
Sep. 30, 1999
By MATT WEISER
Press Democrat Staff Writer
A Sebastopol company must forfeit its inventory of hemp-based food products after it was found to contain traces of the active ingredient in marijuana, federal drug enforcement agents said Wednesday.
Sebastopol-based Nutiva says it was on the verge of runaway success with its new hemp-seed-based nutrition bar, a rival for the likes of Powerbar and other snack foods. It had hoped to capitalize on growing public interest in the health benefits of hemp, driven in part by a
burgeoning hemp products industry that is largely based in Sonoma County.
But now the company is struggling to fend off the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which has recently focused on the growing trade in hemp seeds for food and health products.
"This is coming right at a time when our sales are exploding,'' said John Roulac, president of Nutiva. "You can't get high on hemp seeds. People are buying our bar because it tastes great and because of the nutritional benefits.''
The Nutiva bar is made in Canada using hemp seeds produced by Kenex Ltd., an Ontario firm that bills itself as North America's leading supplier of industrial hemp products.
On Aug. 9, a shipment of Kenex hemp goods was seized in Detroit by U.S. Customs officials, who determined from shipping manifests that the goods did not meet America's zero-tolerance policy for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the euphoria-producing active ingredient in marijuana, hemp's botanical cousin.
THC is a controlled substance under U.S. law and is not allowed in commercial products.
The Kenex shipment contained less than 10 parts per million of THC, the allowable limit under Canadian law and an amount the industry says could never produce a marijuana-like "high.'' Nutiva, the broker and importer for Kenex products in the western United States, says nutrition bars made from Kenex seeds are the top-selling hemp-food product in America.
In addition to seizing the shipment, which was bound for other U.S. customers, federal officials ordered Kenex to recall 17 earlier shipments of hemp-seed products, including those marketed by Nutiva. The goods must be returned to the Detroit customs office under penalty of a $500,000 fine and possible criminal charges.
For decades, the DEA has allowed hemp seeds to be imported to the United States as bird seed if shipments are sterilized so the seeds cannot be germinated into a living plant. Bird breeders and owners have long used hemp seeds as a health supplement for their pets.
Hemp seeds do not contain THC, but seeds often pick up the chemical after coming in contact with leaves and stems during harvesting. Most industrial hemp seed undergoes a rigorous cleaning and sterilization process to remove remnants of THC.
But Canadian rules permit trace amounts of THC to remain on the seeds at the time of sale, leading to the confusion that resulted in the action by DEA and Customs.
Several companies that import hemp seeds from other suppliers said they've experienced no problems at the U.S. border.
"I think we were just recently aware that the shipments that were coming through did have THC,'' said John Holmes, supervisory special agent with U.S. Customs in Detroit. "At this point, if the hemp seed has THC in it, then it is not allowable into the United States. It is not permissible.''
The action is baffling to Roulac and Kenex officials, who have been
"At this point the DEA has chosen to interpret the U.S. law a little differently than it has in the past,'' said Jean Laprise, director of Kenex. "It's basically crippled us. The majority of our business is in the U.S.''
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 nutrition bars, Nutiva also markets raw hemp seed used in cooking. It supplies hemp seed to 700 other businesses, including several restaurants in Sonoma County.
Candi Penn, a member of the board of directors of the Hemp Industries Association, based in Occidental, said the DEA action against Kenex comes at a critical time for the industry.
"These products are absolutely legal,'' said Penn, who noted that hemp has grown to a $100 million industry this year, from just $5 million in 1993. "It's a potential for jobs in America. It's baffling to see that they even want to stop it. Federal rules are not keeping pace with reality.''
Roulac said he is consulting an attorney as he decides how to respond to the federal order. In the meantime, his products are staying put in his Southern California warehouse.
"We are looking for another source of hemp seeds, but we could be potentially liable,'' Roulac said. "We've been advised that they may be charging us with importing a controlled substance.''
© 1998 The Press Democrat