Effort to Revive Hemp Industry Encounters Stigma of Marijuana

Times Staff Writer

He may have the enthusiasm of a New Age Johnny Appleseed, but if John Roulac scatters the seeds of his favorite crop, he could wind up behind bars.

And that infuriates the Ojai entrepreneur, who sees hemp as a remedy for America's ailing farms and as a way to invigorate national health.

He's pushing not marijuana, but industrial hemp, which contains only trace amounts of THC, the chemical that puts the buzz in Cannabis sativa.

Roulac owns and operates Nutiva, one of the largest hemp food companies in the country. He converts hemp seeds from Canada into snack bars and oil sold in 1,200 health-food stores nationwide.

"You can a smoke a truckload of this stuff and all you'll get is a headache," he said, relaxing in the organic garden of his rural Ojai home.

Roulac leads a hemp-centric life. He cooks with hemp oil, grazes on hemp seeds, wears clothes made of hemp fiber and writes books about hemp.

His nimble mind constantly turns over new applications for hemp, a crop he calls the soybean of a new generation -- rich in omega-3 fatty acids and protein.

But Roulac's hemp noshing and peddling days could be numbered. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration declared hemp foods containing THC illegal and gave those making or selling hemp foods 120 days to get rid of their stock.

With their livelihoods threatened, Nutiva and six other hemp businesses joined with the Hemp Industries Assn. of America to sue the DEA in the hope of blocking the ban.

The case is now before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, considered one of the nation's more liberal venues. A decision is expected soon.

DEA officials said they became interested in the issue after seeing increasing numbers of hemp products on the market. Some had labels saying they contained THC. This led to public confusion over what is and isn't legal, the DEA said in a filing with the Federal Register.

"The law is pretty clear," DEA spokesman Will Glaspy said in an interview.

"If it contains THC and it's meant for human consumption, then it's an illegal product. Congress does not make allowances for trace amounts. The law specifies that any amount of THC is illegal."

Opponents say the law has always excluded oil and nonviable hemp seeds from the prohibition.

"They are legal and not on the list of controlled substances," said Joseph Sandler, the attorney representing the hemp industry in the lawsuit.

The DEA said that if the court rules in its favor, local jurisdictions will decide how to prosecute those eating or selling hemp foods.

Industrial hemp has about 0.3% THC, while marijuana hemp, which belongs to the same plant family, has 5% to 20%.

Efforts to legalize industrial hemp have created some bizarre bedfellows.

Roulac, an activist who once held a hemp tasting in front of the DEA headquarters, is allied with James Woolsey, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist for the hemp industry who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995.

"This has nothing to do with marijuana," said Woolsey, who sits on the board of the North American Industrial Hemp Council.

"There isn't a tie-dyed T-shirt in the outfit here. We are opposed to marijuana legalization. We want to grow hemp entirely for fiber."

Roulac, 43, chuckles when he thinks of Woolsey as hemp's chief spokesman. "The politics of hemp is really wild," he said.

It is legal to import hemp fiber and seeds that are shelled or otherwise made nonviable. But growing hemp and importing hemp leaves and flowers, which contain most of the plant's THC, are illegal.

Activists say 25,000 items can be made from hemp. The fiber is used in paper, clothing, even interior car parts.

David Bronner of Escondido runs Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which sells soap made partly of hemp oil.

"We worry that the DEA will roll over the food companies and go for the body soap next," he said. "They might say the THC can be absorbed into the body."

Woolsey said industrial hemp is an ideal rotation crop that replenishes farm soil. He said its fiber could someday replace plastic, which is made of petroleum byproducts.

"It's understandable that the government wants to be a vigilant watchdog regarding marijuana, but there are a number of perfectly rational governments that grow industrial hemp, and there is no evidence that people want to smoke it," he said, noting that hemp is grown in Canada, France, England and elsewhere.

Roulac, who steers clear of the politically charged issue of legalizing marijuana, stays on his message like a politician. It's all hemp, all the time.

He rattles off recipes for hemp pancakes, hemp milk and hemp gravy. He notes that George Washington grew hemp, and says hemp figured prominently in ancient Chinese medicine.

"That parachute George Bush Sr. wore when he bailed out over the Pacific in World War II," he said, "that was made of hemp. So were his shoelaces."

Raised in the wealthy enclave of San Marino, Roulac has long been drawn to environmental causes.

"I became an environmental activist to make a living doing something I believed in and to provide solutions to environmental problems," he said.

He helped start 50 community composting programs throughout Southern California.

In 1990, he saw a U.S. Department of Agriculture film called "Hemp for Victory" that was made during World War II and urged farmers to grow hemp. The plant's fibers were used to make rope, parachutes and string.

Entranced, Roulac decided to try to revive America's hemp industry. He said hemp is environmentally friendly and superior to many crops.

"It doesn't require pesticides or herbicides, its fibers are stronger than [those of] trees and its seed is considered among the most nutritious in the world because of its protein and good fat ratios," he said.

"Hemp never needs weeding because it grows faster than any weed. You plant it and close the door. It's probably the best rotation crop in the country from a biological standpoint."

Roulac has written three books on hemp and lobbied lawmakers. He founded Nutiva in 1999, and today it has offices in Ojai and Sebastopol and a warehouse in Ontario.

"The DEA wants to equate a candy bar with heroin," he said indignantly. "Isn't the drug war going a little far here?"

At the Rainbow Bridge Natural Food store in Ojai, owner Ernest Niglio bristled at the idea that the DEA could order him to remove hemp foods from his shelves.

"If we are told to remove it, we will remove it," he said. "But the real reason for the opposition seems to be the stigma of marijuana."

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