Hemp: The Other Illegal Weed

The business community wants hemp, but the DEA continues to say, ‘No way.’

David Bronner in a cage making hemp in front of the White House
Dr. Bronner's CEO David Bronner stages a pro-hemp protest in front of the White House. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Take a trip to Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Within 30 minutes of arrival, you can have a medical marijuana prescription card in your hand and be stoned off your mind on some of the strongest weed on the planet. With that same card, you can carry marijuana in the streets or grow it in your home. Local authorities won’t say a word.

Former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who famously wrote that hemp is “a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana.”

A few hours south in San Diego, however, if you’re a business owner who specializes in making environmentally friendly soaps from the non-psychotropic strain of the cannabis plant, hemp, you risk imminent arrest and the loss of your entire business if you grow and process your own product.

The insanity of this current state of affairs was demonstrated with dramatic flair two weeks ago when David Bronner—CEO of the San Diego-based soap company Dr. Bronner’s—locked himself in a cage in front of the White House and attempted to whip up a lunchtime sandwich spread made from the grounds of a live hemp plant.

Bronner was removed from his cage by police and promptly arrested for drug possession.

Video of his protest went viral.

TakePart spoke with Bronner, who said the protest was in response to an online petition he and other hemp legalization advocates recently submitted to the White House. The Obama administration took seven months to respond—and when it did, the denial of the petition failed to differentiate hemp from marijuana.

“Obama voted in favor of hemp cultivation twice in Illinois,” says Bronner. “He prides himself on his policy being science and reason based. But it has become obvious that the drug war is driving the Obama administration just like every previous administration. This protest was to call Obama out on his crap.”

Since it has absolutely no psychotropic properties, the hemp plant is actually not illegal in America—to grow or to possess. The U.S. imports tens of millions of dollars of hemp oil from Canada. And American farmers are technically allowed to grow and process hemp on an industrial scale, provided they obtain a federal permit.

The problem is that the DEA refuses to grant permits, following the twisted logic of former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who famously wrote that hemp is “a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana.”

Bronner says his company is forced to import about $100,000 worth of hemp oil from Canada to make its soap products.

“We’re just a drop in the bucket,” he adds. “The U.S. is the largest market for hemp products in the world, and not a single dime of that revenue is going to American farmers. You look at what the Candadians are doing, the Chinese, they’re spending millions behind their hemp programs. They see the potential.”

Like the medical marijuana movement across America, certain states have bucked federal policy and passed hemp cultivation laws. But there is still not a single industrial scale hemp farm anywhere in America.

Tom Murphy, National Outreach Coordinator for the advocacy group Vote Hemp, says the lack is because growing hemp without a federal permit carries the threat of an overwhelming DEA response. Aside from potential prison time, drug enforcement agents are empowered to seize a farmer’s land as evidence.

“With the civil forfeiture laws being what they are in this country,” explains Murphy, “you would be literally betting the farm. Unlike with sick medical marijuana patients, the risk is too great for farmers to participate in civil disobedience. They could lose everything.”

A drug raid on a dying cancer patient who needs weed to cope with nausea is a potential PR nightmare for the government. Quietly seizing the land of a civilly disobedient, able-bodied farmer doesn’t carry quite the same emotional heft.

David Bronner’s bold salvo of hemp activism can’t possibly speak loudly enough. An amendment to the recent omnibus farm bill, proposed by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, would have explicitly differentiated hemp from marijuana in federal law. The amendment failed to pass after senators refused to consider it.

Hemp activists are hoping Wyden will pursue his amendment as a stand-alone bill. Whether that will happen remains uncertain.

Both President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney can’t go to the bathroom without publicly fetishizing the business-friendly nature of their campaigns. And yet business owners like David Bronner risk federal prison time were they to make their products from scratch in America.

Americans are slowly coming around to the fact that the country can no longer afford to enforce an outdated puritanical moral code through a super-sized criminal justice system.

Even stuffed shirt, Reagan-era drug warrior media creatures like George Will have recently argued the inevitability of legalizing drugs.

So, if even the nation’s most conservative minds are toying with the idea of ending the prohibition on heroin and other hard drugs, shouldn’t legalizing hemp be higher up the pecking order?

What is crazier: U.S. drug policy? Or U.S. hemp policy? Or are they all completely reasonable. Answer in COMMENTS.

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