Main Street business sparks clash of cultures Hemp : Chris Baugher says the sterilized hemp seeds and ceremonial pipes he sells are legal. Police and prosecutors disagree.

May 09, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Chris Baugher's store in Bel Air would seem an unlikely drug haven, nestled on Main Street next door to the Harford County Circuit Courthouse and across the street from the sheriff's office.

But in what he and supporters view as a clash of cultures, Baugher faces criminal charges for selling what he says are sterilized -- and legal -- hemp seeds and ceremonial pipes at his shop, Global Roots.

Police and prosecutors say the seeds seized at Baugher's shop -- which features an array of hemp-fiber clothing and other hemp products -- are marijuana and that the pipes are "bongs" that can be used to smoke illegal drugs.

"Obviously, we don't fit the mold of what a business on Main Street in Bel Air should be," says Baugher, a tie-dye-wearing 22-year-old with dreadlocks who is to be arraigned Tuesday on ** drug and drug paraphernalia charges that could result in more than 10 years in prison.

The hemp-seed charges highlight a growing national awareness of -- and controversy about -- the nonpsychoactive strain of cannabis, which is used to make everything from dresses to the Hempen Ale produced locally by the Frederick Brewing Co.

When treated with heat, hemp seeds are rendered sterile and unable to grow into full plants. The seeds contain trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana.

Advocates say hemp, which is prized as a source of industrial fiber and for its use in herbal products, has suffered from its association with marijuana and drug abuse.

Mari Kane, publisher and editor in chief of Forestville, Calif.-based Hemp World magazine, said there is a "real backlash against hemp right now" and that officials are eager to shut down stores that sell hemp and products associated with it.

"This single crop could provide food, shelter, clothing and medicine," said Kane, whose magazine has a circulation of 17,000. "The person who is importing or buying the seeds should not be held responsible if a few seeds survive the sterilization process."

Detective Dean Jager of the Bel Air Police Department said the charges against Baugher are the result of a months-long investigation prompted by concerns about drug paraphernalia, not opposition to hemp products.

"We received several complaints about the store from people in the community," Jager said. "There were complaints about the type of memorabilia being sold there."

The charges against Baugher are thought to mark the second time in Maryland that authorities have prosecuted someone for possession of what were described as sterilized seeds.

In 1993, marijuana activist Pamela Snowhite Davis was acquitted of possession of several pounds of seeds found at her Westminster shop.

In a separate case, Davis was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of marijuana and maintaining a common nuisance. She spent 56 days in jail before she was released, and her conviction eventually was overturned.

Baugher, a northern Harford County native, sees little reason for anyone to be offended by his shop, which is crammed with jewelry, incense, hemp clothing and beads, and which he says is similar to shops flourishing in Fells Point and Ellicott City.

Baugher, a vegetarian, said he opened the business in 1996 to educate people about a "natural way of living" and to raise funds for a community resource and recreation center he would like to see built.

"The main reason we opened the store is because we know a lot of people are moving here from the city and the kids are hanging out with no place to go," Baugher said. His inventory includes clothing and tote bags made of hemp, and novelties such as Hungry Bear Seedy Sweeties, a chewy snack food. Baugher said he is not advocating drug use but trying to raise awareness of the nonintoxicating form of cannabis, which he calls a healthful alternative food source.

His legal problems began March 17 last year, when members of the Joint Narcotics Task Force raided the shop and handcuffed Baugher, his girlfriend and his business partner, Lucia Santoro, 23.

Baugher said officers searched through files and medicinal herbs and videotaped the hemp clothing on display. Officers seized merchandise worth $2,500, including water pipes.

Baugher said the pipes -- which police say are drug paraphernalia -- are ceremonial and are labeled "Not for sale to minors."

He said the hemp seeds are legal and that he buys them from the same industrial supplier used by the brewing company. He displays paperwork from the U.S. Department of Agriculture certifying the seeds as sterilized.

"Those seeds are harmless," Baugher said. "They were totally legal, and even if they grew they would only sprout a tiny bit and never become a mature plant."

A state police laboratory analysis found evidence of marijuana in the 21.5 grams of seeds taken from the store. Joseph I. Cassilly, state's attorney for Harford County, said that report and other evidence were turned over to a grand jury, which indicted Baugher.

"Obviously, there has to be some type of evidence for an indictment to be handed down," Cassilly said.

Hemp enthusiasts are closely monitoring Baugher's case.

Steve Nordahl, vice president of brewing operations for Frederick Brewing Co., which calls its Hempen Ale the first in the nation to be brewed with hemp seeds, said his company is concerned about a precedent being set if Baugher is found guilty.

"I am sympathetic for what he is going through, being dragged through the court system, having his products confiscated and facing the possible loss of his business," said Nordahl, whose company might take part in a May 23 event to raise funds for Baugher's legal expenses.

Andree Thrush, a Forest Hill vision training therapist, said she uses hemp flour to treat people who are unable to properly digest bread products. Thrush said Baugher is being harassed.

"I feel that if he had a normal haircut and wore a business suit, they would have ignored him," Thrush said.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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