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Bird Food is a Casualty of the War on Drugs

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NEW YORK TIMES - Oct. 3, 1999
Bird Food is a Casualty of the War on Drugs

New York, New York
by Christopher S. Wren

What do 40,000 pounds of birdseed have in common with
America's war on drugs?

Nothing, says Jean Laprise, an Ontario farmer who shipped the birdseed to
his American customers only to have it seized when it crossed the U.S.
Canadian border. Everything, say the U.S. government and its critics, but for altogether different reasons. The birdseed, nearly 20 tons of it, has been locked in a Detroit warehouse since Aug. 9, when it was impounded by the United States
Customs Service. The reason: the seed consists of sterilized seeds
processed from industrial hemp.


Laprise has found himself mired in one of the more bizarre episodes of
Washington's campaign to curb illicit drug use. Hemp and marijuana are
different varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa, though
the government rarely distinguishes between them.
"They say it's a tractor trailer full of drugs," Laprise said. "We say
it's a tractor trailer full of birdseed."

But while smoking marijuana delivers a psychoactive high, smoking hemp
gives only a headache. Tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the
psychoactive component in marijuana, usually varies between 4 and 20
percent of a leaf. Industrial hemp has a THC below 1 percent.
The birdseed seized in Detroit had a THC content of barely .0014 percent,
which wouldn't give a bird a buzz.
John Roulac, the president of Nutiva, a company in Sebastopol, Calif.,
that buys hemp seeds from Laprise's operation for food products, said
that seeds themselves have no THC, and whatever gets detected comes from
contact with leaves of the hemp plant. Roulac said the amount of THC was "like an olive pit in a railroad
boxcar."

Laprise, whose company, Kenex Ltd., grows and processes hemp with the
approval of the Canadian government, said that "all of our other products
have no detectable level of THC. The only shipment with any detectable
amount was the birdseed, and it was really nothing."
Though the U.S. government today views hemp with suspicion, it was
historically an agricultural staple used in everything from ropes and
sails to clothing and the first American flag supposedly sewn by Betsy Ross. It
has been virtually illegal since 1937.

Last year, Canada declared hemp a legitimate crop and has granted
growers' licenses for 35,000 acres. Britain, France and Germany also have
commercial hemp industries. Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota passed
laws approving hemp this year as a crop for hard-pressed farmers.
Kenex's customers, who snap up Laprise's hemp seeds and fibers for
everything from food for animals and people to beauty products and horse
bedding, have been outraged by the seizure in Detroit.
"What in the heck are they doing arresting birdseed?" said Anita Roddick,
the British founder of the Body Shop, whose organic hair- and skin-care
products have used hemp oil produced by Laprise.
"It's so Monty Pythonesque," Ms. Roddick said, alluding to the antic
comedians who mocked life's absurdities. "They're chasing around bloody
birdseed. It's making the D.E.A. look stupid."

Federal law enforcement officials defended the seizure. D.E.A. spokesman
Terry Parham said, "Our understanding is there is no legal way for hemp
seed to have come in that contains any quantity of THC." He explained
that no product containing THC could be imported except by a company
registered with the D.E.A., and that no companies are registered.
Drug-policy critics like Ethan Nadelmann, the president of the Lindesmith
Center, a New York group that advocates a more liberal drug policy,
reacted to the birdseed seizure with glee, contending that it shows how
dumb the war on drugs can get.

Laprise said the Customs Service also ordered him to recall his earlier
exports to the United States of hemp oil, horse bedding, animal feed and
granola bars, or face more than $500,000 in fines. He cannot comply, he
said, because the products have been used or consumed.
Meanwhile, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture assessing the
potential of hemp growing has made the rounds of the federal government.
The report's beige cover is stamped "Classified."
"I can't figure out why they classified this," said a government official
who let a reporter take a peek. "The study said there was a limited niche
market for hemp products, like Laprise's birdseed."