WASHINGTON – When Neil Moore cooks, he adds hemp to his pancakes, his salads — just about everything. As a buyer for the Common Market in Frederick, he stocks his store with hemp nuts and hemp-based cheese, waffles and bread, too.
So when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a ruling that could ban Moore’s favorite dietary staple as an illegal drug, he was shocked. But he kept right on stocking hemp foods at his store anyway.
“We’re not pulling anything,” Moore said. “We’re just going to continue selling it, until it’s no longer available through the distributors. Last time I checked, it still is. I ordered hemp waffles last week.”
He’s not alone. While tighter federal regulation on hemp foods have spooked corporate retailers like Whole Foods Market into yanking the products off their shelves, some locally based sellers are standing their ground while members of the hemp industry plead their case in court.
“It’s definitely created somewhat of a panic,” said Ron Erickson, manager of My Organic Market in College Park. “We have customers coming in asking if they can buy whole cases of a product. They’re trying to buy us out.”
The cause for the panic is the “interpretative rule” issued in October by the DEA, classifying any food containing any amount of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) — the narcotic substance in marijuana — as an illegal Schedule I drug. Since hemp and marijuana are derived from varieties of the cannabis plant, many argue it’s impossible for hemp to be made 100 percent THC-free.
“All hemp contains infinitesimal amounts of THC,” said John Roulac, president of Nutiva Inc., which produces hemp energy bars and snacks. “Just like there’s no such thing as arsenic-free water. They make alcohol-free beer, and there’s still traces of alcohol in that, too.”
If that’s true, then the “zero tolerance” rule effectively bans all hemp foods, which are popular on the health-food scene as a source of protein and nutritious fatty and amino acids.
Whole Foods, which also owns Fresh Fields, ordered all hemp foods off its shelves on Feb. 5, the day before the DEA planned to start enforcing the rule.
But enforcement has been stalled by a lawsuit filed against the rule by Nutiva, the Hemp Industries Association and others. The DEA at the last minute granted a reprieve, giving businesses and consumers until March 18 to get rid of all hemp foods possibly containing THC.
“Our co-op members and staff were cheering the 40-day reprieve,” said Bob Atwood, manager of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-op. “The warehouse is full of the product. If we don’t sell it, we’re going to lose money.”
A Whole Foods spokeswoman said the company will only restock hemp foods if and when the manufacturers provide documentation proving their products meet the DEA’s new “zero-THC” rule. But locally owned stores and food cooperatives are not being so strict.
“We have HempPlus granola, waffles, hemp-nut cheese, hemp-nut chips, and we also have hemp-nut oil,” Atwood said recently. “They’re low in fat — very nutritious. People ask us for them; they know the nutritional value.”
Asked whether he worried about the rule, he said, “I’d like to see them bring a drug-sniffing dog out here and see if it can find any THC.”
My Organic Market in College Park has not flinched, either. The store will continue to sell an array of hemp foods as long as they are available, Erickson said, calling the DEA ruling “ridiculous.”
The Glut Co-op in Mount Rainier has hemp products, though not for long, said co-op worker Judy Davis.
“We had some in stock already, so we were carrying them when the order came,” she said. “We’re not going to try to continue them, though. I’m assuming they’re going to be outlawed.”
But it is wrong to make that assumption, said HempNut Inc. President John Rose.
Rose said he has no problem complying with the DEA rule because his hemp products are already THC-free. The problem, he said, lies with the people protesting it.
“This is activism for activism’s sake,” he said. “If they would have stayed away, the DEA’s rule would have come and gone like the countless others I have to comply with.”
Rose said the flap is penalizing his business, as hemp advocates spread misleading information that is frightening retailers and distributors.
“The distributors are dropping it, the chain stores are making things difficult — all because they’re all shaking in their boots,” he said. “I have lab tests to prove we have no THC in our product.”
Roulac, who is involved in unrelated litigation with Rose over trademark disputes, said Rose is misleading people by claiming hemp can be made THC-free. If the DEA wins the lawsuit over its rule, Roulac said, it is possible he could lose the entire 60 percent of his business that is hemp-based.
But while the debate over THC and hemp rages, the controversy is generating a sales boom. As long as local retailers keep selling hemp foods and customers don’t fear buying them, Roulac said, his company will profit from the attention.
“Our sales doubled in January from December, and we’re projecting another 50 percent increase this month,” he said.
“The hemp train is leaving the station, and the louder the DEA tries to yell to stop it, the faster we’re moving down the track!”