Hearty, tasty, and nearly illegal
In the Dauphin region of Manitoba, the days are growing shorter and colder, and snow will soon be on the ground, where it will linger until March. Across the horizon, prairies teem with combines plodding through the fields for the annual hemp harvest.
Since early June, when Canadian farmers could be relatively certain that the last frost had passed, hemp plants have grown from seedlings poking through the province's black soil to statuesque stalks, with serrated leaves that give way to ripe flowers full of seeds.
Farmers export the seeds and plant fibers to the United States, where manufacturers use it to make goods such as flour, bread, cheese, butter, birdseed, clothing, and personal care products. High in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, hemp foodstuffs appeal to those looking for an alternative to fish, which can contain mercury. The Hemp Industry Association estimates annual sales of U.S. hemp food products is $40 million.
Despite hemp's nutritional benefits, you will not find lush fields of the plant in the U.S. because, since 1958, it has been illegal to grow the "industrial" variety here. Hemp is related to marijuana, but is non-psychoactive and its flowers contain only trace amounts of THC.
Although you'd puke before eating enough hemp bread to get stoned, had a proposed rule by the Drug Enforcement Administration become law, you could have been charged with possession of a Schedule I controlled substance for keeping a loaf in the fridge.
In a 2003 rule change, the DEA tried to criminalize the importation of hemp foods for human consumption (but not birdseed and animal food), claiming they contained THC and thus fell under the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act, which Congress passed in the heady days of 1970.
The Hemp Industry Association, a lobbying group, immediately sued the DEA and also filed a challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement, of which Canada is a partner. While this move triggered mandatory meetings with the State Department, David Bronner, chairman of the HIA's Food and Oil Committee says, "Under NAFTA rules, you can't change policy. The only avenue was a domestic court."
Enter the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously ruled that the DEA could not ban nutritious hemp foods and that the Controlled Substances Act specifically exempted "industrial" hemp products, much like it exempted poppy seeds from the list of prohibited opiates. The Bush Administration failed to appeal the decision by the September 27 deadline, and the court's ruling held.
To celebrate the Ninth Circuit's decision, we broke out the hemp bread ($4.99 a loaf at Whole Foods) and opted for peanut butter and banana as a topping, since hemp cheese should be consumed only with the same caveats as soy cheese `see "Pfut!" July 15-21, 2004`; in other words, bleck. Earthy, crunchy, and dense, the dark bread (which also contains spelt, kamut, and other exotic grains) serves as a good gateway to other hemp foods: the raw seeds taste like their sunflower counterparts and can be roasted; the flour can be used in waffles and nut breads.
Ironically, the Puritans first brought hemp to America in 1645, and the crop flourished in the South and Midwest until the development of the cotton gin and popularity of jute and abaca displaced it. In World War II, imports of abaca and jute were unavailable and hemp briefly came back in vogue. Unlike cotton, hemp requires few pesticides or herbicides, and is often grown organically. Its leaves resemble that of the pot plant, which can confuse law enforcement agents surveilling fields from helicopters.
"People think you can grow pot in a hemp field," says Bronner. "Hemp grows densely and tall and looks very different from marijuana, which is low and busy. No one would grow a drug crop in a non-drug crop. It would cross-pollinate and ruin its potency."
Bronner sees the court's ruling as a step towards eventual legalization of hemp farming in the U.S. Fourteen states have passed legislation to research hemp agriculture, albeit under extremely controlled circumstances and with federal permits. In 1999, Hawaii received $200,000 from a hair-care company to plant test plots of hemp, although the federal government required the fields to be enclosed in 12-foot-high fence with infrared surveillance.
On the federal level, votehemp.com rated presidential candidates on their stances on U.S. hemp cultivation: Bush received an F for the DEA's proposed rule; Kerry received a failing grade because he did not follow up on a promise to complete the hemp survey. Independent Ralph Nader, Green David Cobb, and Libertarian Michael Badnarik received A-pluses for supporting the legalization of industrial hemp.
Vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who hails from a major tobacco-producing state, North Carolina, received a B-minus for agreeing to allow research without federal permits but remaining undecided on whether to allow farmers to grow it.
Bonner says some members of Congress are sympathetic to the hemp cause, although none will go on the record in favor of hemp during an election year. The HIA is also working with Midwestern farmers to rally support. Still, hemp's opponents contend legalizing hemp farming would, as Bonner describes, "send the wrong message to children."
"Generally you have opposition from the cultural warriors, the religious, zealot right. You can't have the message come out that there are some pretty amazing applications for hemp." •
By Lisa Sorg