This Bud's Not For You

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No one is saying Kentucky doesn't offer its share of distinctive intoxicants. Bourbon and tobacco have long been popular drugs here, and even in these abstemious times, a well-known member of the political class will occasionally pour his visitors a glass of moonshine from a Mason jar with plumped cherries bobbing on the bottom.

But the farmers around Lexington are mostly old-fashioned men with a serious problem: the decline in demand for U.S. tobacco. And when they tell you they know of a crop that could help replace tobacco and maybe save their farms, they aren't promoting any stoner foolishness. True, the crop they hope to grow is known to botanists as Cannabis sativa, but different races within that species can have widely varying amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the merrymaking chemical in pot. Marijuana will typically have anywhere from 3% to 20% THC. Hemp is bred to contain less than 1%. You could roll and smoke every leaf on a 15-ft. hemp plant and gain little more than a hacking cough.

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Next month, however, the Drug Enforcement Administration is set to begin enforcing a new rule treating foods that contain "any amount of" THC (even nonpsychoactive amounts) as controlled substances, making them as restricted as heroin. Anyone possessing such foods is supposed to dispose of them now, though hemp sellers and eaters won't be prosecuted until March 18. Nationally marketed products include the Hempzel Pretzels, baked in Pennsylvania, and Organic Hemp Plus Granola, made in Blaine, Wash. Gastronomically speaking, a ban on these earthy-tasting comestibles would be no great tragedy--though the hemp-crazy Galaxy Global Eatery in New York City serves an apple pie with a delightful hemp crust.

Economically speaking, though, a ban could ruin the 20 or so companies that make and sell more than $5 million worth of hemp waffles, salad oils and other foods a year. Hemp Universe here in Lexington stopped selling food weeks ago, and Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, recommended last week that its 129 stores remove hemp products. Other retailers are holding firm, saying hemp foods contain such tiny traces of THC that the chemical wouldn't register in a routine lab test. But that's not the same as having zero THC, and the threat of further DEA action has prompted seven hemp companies to ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to block the rule. They say the DEA is effectively creating a new law, not interpreting existing statutes. A Canadian hemp firm has filed a claim saying the DEA is violating NAFTA by failing to provide scientific justification for a rule that "will be nothing short of an absolute ban on trade in hemp food." (The Canadian government has also formally objected.) The DEA's position is that U.S. drug laws clearly ban THC--any THC. The court's decision will turn on the historically murky question of whether Congress intended hemp to be part of those laws. Some antidrug groups-- including, most stridently, the Family Research Council--believe allowing hemp foods would send a pro-marijuana message.

Many farmers are watching the case because it shows how hard the government will fight a growing movement to legitimize hemp farming in the U.S. Right now it's legal to sell hemp products but illegal to grow the hemp used in them, which is imported. The global market for raw hemp is expanding. Foods are only a fraction of the hemp-product universe, which includes Mercedes door panels, Body Shop Body Butter, Armani place mats, and countless humbler items such as twine, carpet and diapers. These nonedibles would remain legal under the rule. But if the court doesn't intervene, investors may think twice before supporting a business associated with drugs.

If hemp cultivation were legalized, could it really save U.S. farms? That's unclear, but legislators in more than 20 states have asked for research. They know that a year after Canada allowed hemp cultivation in 1998, its farms were already growing 35,000 acres. The U.S. has taken a different, more tangled approach to the plant, one that reflects the quick assumptions of the war on drugs. The farmland around leafland, a once commanding estate east of Lexington, used to provide a rich bounty to the Graves clan. Jacob Hughes, a Welshman, first planted in this part of Kentucky in the 1770s, but now his great-great-grandson, Jacob Hughes Graves III, 75, grows corn and tobacco only out of tradition. Although he earned his livelihood as a banker, Graves grew up working on the farm, and he always hoped his land might provide at least one of his nine children with an agricultural career.

His son Andrew made a go of it, but by the mid-'90s, it was clear to the son that tobacco was in trouble. Pushing 40, Andrew was wondering what to do with himself when local entrepreneurs suggested hemp. Products have been made from the versatile plant for thousands of years. Early American planters grew it widely; George Washington sowed it on four of his farms. But the cotton gin--and later nylon--all but killed the industry. Beginning in the late 1980s, hemp products enjoyed a renaissance, at first as novelty items for liberals. Greens love hemp because it's a renewable resource and an effective rotation crop that requires little or no herbicide. Nutritionists and vegetarians found that hemp oil has an unusually beneficial ratio of essential fatty acids ("good" fats).

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