Nadine Hurley
In a steady downpour, during Monday's lunch hour, fifteen activists stood outside local DEA offices downtown and convinced bypassers to sample hempseed products, like hemp potato chips and energy bars. They also tried to convince the lunch-hour crowd to sign a petition to halt a new ruling by the DEA that would effectively outlaw hemp oil and hemp seed products in America. Although they gave a no-pressure sale, their pleas were tinged with a sense of urgency: As soon as February, a new federal rule may demand that stores discontinue selling hemp products or face criminal charges equivalent to those faced by a drug pusher.

In early October, the DEA announced a new rule that any products containing even trace amounts of THC--the narcotic component of marijuana--will be considered so-called Schedule I controlled substances. Until this announcement, hempseeds and hemp oil products were excluded from the DEA's treatment as illegal narcotics.

Occurring behind closed doors at the DEA, the policy change caught industry representatives from the hempseed industry off-guard. For the past five years, the industry has steadily grown to an estimated $5 million-a-year business in North America. Lobbyists for the hempseed industry claim that the tiny amount of THC in products is about as odious as trace opiate qualities in poppy seeds or minute alcohol content in fruit juices. Moreover, they postulate that, if this rule stands, the hempseed industry could become an innocent casualty of the war on drugs--reinvigorated by Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush Administration. (The DEA is a branch of the AG office.)

"They're out to prove a point," says Steve Cooper, a local representative for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Wave cannabis at them and they respond like a bull to a red cape."

Activists point out that the new ruling has been pushed since the Bush Administration took office last year, and exposes the exact dimensions to which the Attorney General holds sway over the morals and lifestyles of Americans. Spokespeople from NORML and Vote Hemp believe that the re-classification of hemp seeds as illegal narcotics is a further attempt to turn back the tide against limited legal uses of products related to marijuana. (A ruling by the Supreme Court in May curtailed state laws that permitted medicinal uses of marijuana.)

The protest in Portland corresponded with rallies in more than 50 cities around the country. The nationwide protests corresponded with a federal lawsuit that was filed in San Francisco law week; the lawsuit--a motion to stay the administrative order--would prevent the ruling from taking effect until the public had an opportunity to comment on the redefinition. The petitioners chose the Ninth Circuit--which includes California and Oregon--because of its reputation for having the most liberal federal judges and politics in the country.

The legal battle over hemp seeds is focusing on a somewhat droll bureaucratic distinction between what is an administrative rule and what constitutes rule-making; only the U.S. Congress can make and change laws, while an administrative agency like the DEA has the power to rewrite administrative rules. Hempseed activists say that the DEA's action effectively changed the law because it criminalizes activity that was previously legal; under such rationale, the DEA's action would not be permissible.

Available in dozens of stores around Portland, from head shops along Hawthorne to food co-ops and upscale stores like the Body Shop, hemp oil has overcome initial suspicions over the past several years and become a common ingredient for a variety of products. The hempseed is botanically a nut and is uniquely loaded with proteins, say proponents.

It is expected that a panel of federal judges will provide a ruling as early as next week. If the motion to stay fails, hempseed products may be ordered off shelves at soon as February 6.