U.S. says birdseed shipment won't fly

Drug controversy begins as customs seizes product because it contains hemp

October 03, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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

Nothing, says Jean Laprise, an Ontario, Canada, farmer who shipped the birdseed to his U.S. customers only to have it seized when it crossed the U.S.-Canadian border.

Everything, says the U.S. government.

The nearly 20 tons of birdseed have been locked in a Detroit warehouse since Aug. 9, when the birdseed was impounded by the U.S. 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 U.S. 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."

While smoking marijuana delivers a psychoactive high, smoking hemp results only in a headache. Tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, usually varies between 4 percent and 20 percent of a leaf. Industrial hemp has a THC of less than 1 percent.

The birdseed seized in Detroit had a THC content of about .0014 percent, which wouldn't give a bird a buzz.

John Roulac, president of Nutiva, a company in Sebastapol, Calif., that buys hempseeds from Laprise's operation for food products, said the THC detected in the seeds 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 "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 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.

Canada declared hemp a legitimate crop last year, 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 hempseeds and hemp 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 products have used hemp oil produced by Laprise.

"It's so Monty Pythonesque," Roddick said, alluding to the comedians who mocked life's absurdities. "They're chasing around bloody birdseed. It's making the DEA look stupid."

Federal law enforcement officials defended the seizure. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Terry Parham said, "Our understanding is there is no legal way for hempseed 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 DEA. No companies are registered.

Laprise said the Customs Service ordered him to recall his earlier exports to the United States or be fined more than $500,000. He cannot comply, he said, because the products have been used.

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