It began several years ago when two U.S. servicemen were acquitted of failing drug tests. Their defense: They were bodybuilders who had consumed dietary supplements containing hemp-seed oil, which supposedly builds muscle and helps burn calories.
The acquittals led to widespread speculation that the federal government's drug-testing policy could be in jeopardy. Anyone busted for a positive marijuana test might claim that they were ingesting hemp seeds or oil, which contain trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient in pot that gets you high.
The government was quick to act in a predictably panicky manner. The Air Force banned eating hemp seeds or oil. The Office of Drug Control Policy considered whether to place warning labels on hemp foods.
Last October, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the federal agency at the forefront of the War on Drugs, went a step further. In a "reinterpretation" of an existing policy, the DEA banned the selling of foods containing hemp seed or hemp oil. No hemp cereal, no hemp pretzels, no hemp beer.
The ban was supposed to take effect Feb. 6 but was extended 40 days to accommodate a federal appeal filed by the Hemp Industry Association. On March 7, the United States Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit granted a stay to the Hemp Association until the court hears the appeal April 8.
"The stay means that we are likely to prevail on the merits of the case," says Eric Steenstra, a member of the Hemp Industry Association and president of the grassroots organization Vote Hemp.
Locally, some stores, such as Whole Foods Market, pulled hemp foods from their shelves. Other health-foods stores, such as Chamberlin's Market and Cafe, never pulled the products.
"Business has been affected," says Steenstra, who estimates the American hemp industry as a $150 million business, including hemp clothes and body oils, which were not part of the DEA ban. "Sales have been hurt at a couple of the major chains."
Whatever the outcome of the appeal, the DEA has not done well in the court of public opinion. More than 115,000 people sent the agency messages complaining of the rule interpretation. Mainstream media outlets have ridiculed the change in policy. "Check Aisle 7 for War on Drugs," a Baltimore Sun headline read. "The Drug War Blunders On," blasted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. US News & World Report called it a "Munchies Crackdown."
Twenty-two members of Congress have declared the ban "overly restrictive," and the Department of Justice has told the DEA that the reinterpretation has no legal merit. "Products derived from this portion of the cannabis plant commonly referred to as 'hemp' are explicitly excluded from regulation under the Controlled Substance Act," wrote John Roth, chief of the DOJ's Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.
Even so, don't look for the DEA to give up easily. The agency continues to link hemp seeds to the movement to legalize marijuana, though DEA administrators don't do the same for poppy seeds, which contain trace amounts of opium.