(Syndicated Article for 400 Papers)
October 4, 1999

DEA's Assault on Birdseed
By Jack Anderson & Douglas Cohn

Zealotry is not an attribute Americans value in their government, whether it comes in the form of an overbearing policeman, an all-too-happy tax collector, or -- an arbitrary drug enforcement agent. Zealotry is worse, still, when it infects not just the agent, but the agency -- in this case, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) -- as occurred on August 9:

A tractor-trailer full of seed destined for a birdseed factory was stopped and seized in Detroit, Michigan, by U.S. Customs officials on orders from the DEA. The cargo was listed as sterilized hemp seed from Kenex, a farming company based in Ontario, Canada, where it is licensed to breed, grow, process and manufacture hemp and hemp products.

You may wonder if this "dangerous" birdseed was laced with acid or camouflaging heroin. It was not.

The problem arose when the DEA literally chose to take the law into its own hands by redefining the law as it relates to marijuana, despite the fact that Congress, when drafting the Controlled Substance Act of 1937, excluded from its definition of marijuana, "the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination."

Such seeds, it was acknowledged, may -- like the oil and the nut -- contain naturally occurring traces of Tetra hydro cannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. By Kenex's own paperwork, the hemp seed contained .00148 percent THC -- the equivalent, according to Kenex president, Jean Laprise, of an olive pit in a railroad car.

By comparison, a marijuana leaf contains five to 30 percent THC. The DEA interpretation of the law is that only completely sterilized cannabis seeds, incapable of germination, are exempted from the Controlled Substance Act. The DEA states it has recently become aware that some of these seeds are being imported for human consumption, and if the seeds are remotely contaminated by THC, it is illegal to eat them under federal law -- this though they acknowledge that no one could get high  off such trace amounts.

However, we have in our possession two affidavits from DEA employees from a 1991 lawsuit against a hemp manufacturer, that declare, "A five percent viability rate is considered necessary by the DEA to prove that the sample of seeds is indeed viable. Viability is the critical aspect of the analysis because the law specifically states that sterilized seeds incapable of germination are not included in the term 'marijuana' and are therefore not controlled."

A Customs official tells us the Kenex load was registered as sterilized grain. The paperwork with the truck indicated the cargo was sterilized hemp seed. Even so, Customs contacted DEA, and DEA instructed Customs to seize the load. Customs complied and 17 other hemp loads shipped from Kenex to the U.S. were recalled. Kenex had to contact all of the American companies that had received hemp shipments and request they track down the product and send it back to the border in 30 days or face a fine. "The fines are inevitable; the hemp we have shipped has been processed and sold," Laprise told us.

Unapologetically, Dean Boyd, spokesperson for Customs told us. "The law is the law. We don't want to get in a political back and forth on the merits of hemp seed. We have to uphold the law." But he was quoting the law according to the DEA, not the act of Congress.

Kenex continues to insist that hemp is legal and they have been shipping it across the border for over a year without incident. "Do you think if they were trying to smuggle a product, they would have admitted to having drugs in the load?" asks John Roulac, a California businessman who was to receive part of the hemp seed shipment for chewy granola bars that his company produces.

Interestingly, of the 32 countries that grow and import hemp, none of them are mentioned in the DEA's congressional report on drug-producing nations.

Anderson & Cohn