Seizure: For the birds

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Seizure: For the birds

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has flexed its "zero tolerance" muscles in an effort to protect Americans from THC – the psychoactive component of marijuana – by halting a truckload of sterile, and, for all intents and purposes, THC-free hemp seeds on their way to a birdseed manufacturer in Baltimore.

Seventeen tons of seed have been sitting in a metro Detroit warehouse since the shipment from Canada was seized in early August. Meanwhile, the Canadian and United States hemp industries are left to wonder what impact this action will have on their business.

Jean Laprise, owner of Kenex Ltd. in Chatham, Ontario, and producer of the confiscated hemp seeds, is flabbergasted by this entanglement in an otherwise smooth re-emergence of the Canadian hemp industry. Canada endorsed the growing of industrial hemp almost a year and a half ago.

Since then, Kenex has been delivering shipments of hemp seeds, cosmetic- and food-grade oil and horse bedding to customers across the United States. U.S. Customs first demanded that Kenex turn over its records and recall shipments as far back as 1998, or face a fine in excess of $500,000.

This is impossible, laments Laprise in a recent New York Times article, because the products have been used. How can you recall hemp seeds, an essential ingredient in the popular Nutiva hemp bar, that were already consumed?

Conditions for release of the seeds, valued at $25,000, have apparently now changed. According to Laprise, the DEA notified him last week that in exchange for releasing the hemp seeds, Kenex must pay a seizure cost between $5,000 and $10,000 and sign a "hold harmless" agreement, which basically says the government agencies did nothing wrong and they can’t be sued at a later date. But even then, Laprise says Kenex has no guarantee future shipments will not be stopped at the border.

"Those are unacceptable conditions that we are being forced to accept, under protest," Laprise says. The DEA gave the orders to U.S. Customs officials to seize the shipment, based on the notion that industrial hemp seeds may be "contaminated" with THC, the component necessary to get high from smoking marijuana. Canadian grade industrial hemp is regulated to 0.3 percent THC; commercial pot generally has 8 percent to 20 percent THC.

In a statement, the DEA asserted the U.S. Controlled Substance Act of 1937 defines hemp as marijuana. Hemp advocates maintain that sterilized hemp seeds are specifically excluded from Schedule I classification of marijuana in the Controlled Substance Act.

Industrial hemp seeds are also specifically highlighted in NAFTA as a legal U.S. import, hemp advocates say.

Industrial hemp has been imported for years from such countries as Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and lately Canada. Because hemp production is outlawed in the United States, importation is the only option available to American companies that use hemp products.

This move by the DEA is raising a ruckus in government circles in Canada. In a letter to Commissioner Raymond Kelley of the United States Customs Service, Canadian Minister Douglas Waddel expressed concern: "The treatment of this company, and in particular the lack of due process and the failure by the U.S. to follow normal Customs procedures, are matters of particular concern to Canadian authorities. Moreover, Canada considers this seizure action to be contrary to U.S. NAFTA and WTO obligations."

Some hemp entrepreneurs worry this incident will stymie the industrial hemp movement. Don Wirtshafter, founder of the Ohio Hempery, is quite disturbed about what happened.

"The (DEA) has shaken all confidence in the hemp and the hemp food industry," says Wirtshafter. "We were just at the point of success and they knocked our legs out from under us."

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