Seeds of Discord

Sowing hemp hysteria


It turns out that the hand cream you bought at The Body Shop last year was a controlled substance. But it's not anymore. Probably.

This is the upshot of two rules the Drug Enforcement Administration unveiled in October. The first announced that all products containing the slightest trace of THC, marijuana's main active ingredient, are prohibited substances. This came as a surprise to the dozens of companies that for years have sold products made from cannabis fiber, seeds, or oil. Such hemp products, which include clothing, snacks, nutritional supplements, toiletries, and bird food, may contain tiny amounts of THC, but not enough to get anyone high.

The second DEA rule exempted inedible THC-tainted hemp products from the ban, provided that "using them does not cause THC to enter the human body." The DEA is pretty sure that "personal care 'hemp' products" such as hand cream, soap, and shampoo qualify for the exemption, although it is "unaware of any scientific evidence definitively answering this question."

But edible hemp products—including dietary supplements, pasta, tortilla chips, candy bars, salad dressings, cheese, and beer—are in the same legal category as heroin. According to the DEA, they have been since 1970. It's just that no one realized it until now.

The new rules apparently stem from concerns that hemp products could interfere with drug testing. In 1997 the Journal of Analytical Toxicology published two reports of studies finding that people who do not smoke pot but consume hemp seed oil can test positive for marijuana. A few months later, an Air Force sergeant who used the oil as a dietary supplement was acquitted of marijuana charges. In 1999 the Air Force ordered its personnel to stay away from the stuff. "Such applications for human consumption are confounding our Federal drug control testing program," then?drug czar Barry McCaffrey complained in a 2000 letter to U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii).

Laura Shelton, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, says her group did not lobby for the ban, although she concedes that "it will make it easier for our members who have come across this situation." The American Association of Medical Review Officers, which represents drug testing specialists, has been warning for years that government-mandated urinalysis could be overturned on constitutional grounds because hemp products make the results unreliable. "Products that cause a positive THC urinalysis must be removed from commerce," said a 1997 editorial in the organization's journal, "or we will be forced by the courts to stop testing for marijuana."