OAKLAND – About 20 activists, many from Berkeley, gathered outside the Federal Building Tuesday afternoon to protest an Oct. 9 ruling by the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Agency that declared all foods made with hemp illegal.
The protest was part of a national “day of action,” with protests across the country, organized by Vote Hemp and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a pair of advocacy groups.
Activists labeled the DEA ruling “ridiculous,” arguing that hemp, a portion of the cannabis plant that also produces marijuana, is safe, healthy, and contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that creates the drug’s high.
“It’s really healthy, it tastes good, and it doesn’t get you high,” said Rebecca Saltzman, 19, a UC Berkeley student and member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Activists said the ruling is crippling a growing, multi-million dollar hemp food industry that launched, in earnest, in 1998.
Will Glaspy, spokesperson for the DEA, said the agency issued the ruling to clear up confusion around the legality of hemp food products.
The misunderstanding is rooted in the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. On the one hand, the language exempts fibers, oils and cakes derived from cannabis – in other words, food products made from the “hemp” part of the plant – but on the other hand, the definition classifies, as a controlled substance, “any material, compound, mixture, or preparation, which contains any quantity of...THC.”
In its ruling, the DEA argued that Congress exempted certain food products because it believed they did not contain any THC. Now, the agency says, it is clear that food products with hemp include some amount of THC, and that the language in the Controlled Substances Act declaring any product with THC a controlled substance should win the day.
Patrick Goggin, lawyer for the Hemp Industries Association, an industry group that is filing for an emergency stay of the DEA ruling in the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, finds fault with the DEA’s logic.
Goggin argues that the Controlled Substance Act makes very clear exemptions for the use of hemp in food products, and that the new regulation is arbitrary, since the federal government allows for trace amounts of opiates in the poppy seeds on bagels and other foods.
Goggin said he expects the court to rule on the emergency stay in the next couple of weeks. If the stay is granted, the court would temporarily suspend the DEA rule while it decides on the rule’s legality.
Yesterday, activists outside the Federal Building said the DEA ruling is simply a slap in the face of the larger movement to legalize marijuana.
“Hemp is used in food products that have no drug content,” said Don Duncan of Berkeley Patients Group, a local dispenser of medical marijuana. “(The ruling) seems to be making a misguided, symbolic gesture by banning it.”
John Roulac, president and founder of Nutiva, a Sonoma County hemp food company that produces health bars and tortilla chips, said the DEA ruling has scared off several retailers and customers, leading to a roughly 35 percent decline in Nutiva sales.
“One day we were selling our products and the next day it was illegal,” said Roulac, who was in Washington, D.C. yesterday for a protest outside the DEA’s offices.
Jolyn Warford, Regional Marketing Coordinator for Whole Foods, which maintains a natural foods store in Berkeley, said the company “will be complying with the regulations put forth by the Drug Enforcement Agency.”
Whole Foods will sell the remaining hemp food nutrition bars on its shelves, Warford said, falling in line with a 120-day “grace period” for “disposing” of hemp food inventory allowed by the DEA. After that, she said, Whole Foods will stop stocking hemp food products.
Officials at Wild Oats, another natural food chain with a store in Berkeley, could not be reached by the Daily Planet’s deadline. But, Larry Valle, grocery manager at the Berkeley Wild Oats, said he will continue stocking hemp food products until his home office tells him otherwise.
Activists said hemp contains an optimum balance of essential fatty acids – a series of healthy fats – and is the second-highest source of vegetable protein on the market, trailing only soy.
The DEA’s ruling does not effect hemp products like clothing and bird seed that are not consumed by humans.