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White House Watch: THC madness

The drug war blunders on: The DEA is cracking down on hempseed oil in tortilla chips

Sunday, December 09, 2001

By Ann McFeatters

WASHINGTON - And now, for something completely different, to borrow a phrase from Monty Python.

The three earnest young men burdened with plastic bags came to the office bearing food. Pretzels with seeds. A snack bar. An energy bar. Tortilla chips.

  Ann McFeatters is National Bureau chief for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Her e-mail address is amcfeatters@

Never mind the caloric sin. We're talking serious evil here.

Or so the government says.

Unless you are an avid reader of the Federal Register and perused the tiny print of almost undecipherable bureaucratese on pages 51,539 through 51,544, you might have missed it -- but the government has returned to normal.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, under the direction of Asa Hutchinson, the former GOP congressman from Arkansas, has announced rules to ban certain brands of a wide variety of foods -- "beer, cheese, coffee, corn chips, energy drink, flour, ice cream, snack bars, salad oil, soda and veggie burgers" -- if they contain trace amounts of THC.

THC, as those who came to the age of majority in the 1960s know well, is tetrahydrocannabinols. As DEA succinctly explains: "That's the hallucinogenic substance in marijuana that causes the psychoactive effect or high."

The THC found in certain brands of the above-mentioned food comes from hempseeds and hempseed oil, popular with some so-called "natural food" manufacturers because they are high in protein and serve as a fatty acid supplement -- "good fats" that doctors like. But DEA says such foods are now controlled substances illegal for everyone.

Makers of foods with hempseeds or oil, with $5 million in annual sales, argue that the amount of THC is so infinitesimal that inhumanly high consumption of them would be required to get high. They liken it to getting a buzz from eating the opiate-containing poppy seeds on bagels or the alcohol in orange juice.

But the Controlled Substances Act says that any consumption of THC is forbidden. And any food that contains it is no longer to be sold, distributed or eaten.

Says the DEA: "If you wish to err on the side of caution, you may freely dispose of the product. As stated in the rules that DEA published on Oct. 9, 2001, anyone who has purchased a food or beverage product that contains THC has 120 days (until Feb. 6, 2002) to dispose of the product without penalty under federal law."

After Feb. 6, it will be illegal to sell or import any hemp-containing foods.

The DEA, in its wisdom, notes that bird seed with cannabis seeds, clothing such as hats, shirt and shoes, cosmetics, lotion, paper, rope, twine and, yes, shampoo and soap, which also can contain hemp, are not illegal. "Based on the information currently available, DEA believes that [such products] do not cause THC to enter the human body and are therefore legal."

Confronted with the thought that the government's investing time, money and energy in such a campaign during a time of war is, possibly, ridiculous, Hutchinson says, "Many Americans do not know that hemp and marijuana are both parts of the same plant and that hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana."

Not surprisingly, supporters of food with hempseed oil have gone to court, beseeching the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block the DEA rule. DEA says it is permitted to issue the ban on THC-laced products without a formal rule-making procedure although the public may comment until Dec. 10. "It's like the judge announcing the verdict before the trial," complained John Young, a lawyer for the hemp-food lawsuit, to the National Law Journal.

Groups which are applauding the DEA's action, such as the conservative Family Research Council, say food with hempseeds sends a pro-drug message to children and is camouflage for a campaign to legalize marijuana.

The other day, confronted by a man in Florida who said the government was not responding to his needs, President Bush muttered, "I can't stand bureaucracy."

Bush remembered the cameras were rolling and said that he appreciated "the hard-working people who care enough to work for the government. But what I don't like is systems that get so cumbersome that those who are trying to help you don't get the product out."

In the course of writing this, I have munched on the 120-calorie corn chips, the 220-calorie pretzels and devoured the 170-calorie snack bar. In truth, I feel nothing but my waistband.

And a curious desire to watch "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

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