It's Time to Outlaw Grape Juice -- A Cautionary Tale

There's a problem in this country and I for one refuse to ignore it any longer. The problem is grape juice. It may sound silly, but I'm worried it poses a serious threat to our nation's children. Sure, it seems harmless, aside from potential rug stains and raised blood sugar levels, but lets think about what grape juice really is. It's unfermented wine. Hasn't anyone ever thought about what serving this beverage to small children could do? Who hasn't been fooled by a little Welchs in a Merlot glass? Toddlers could get confused, develop a taste for red varietals, and from there, who knows. Do we want a bunch of Thunderbird-downing six-year-olds on our hands? And would it stop there? Many an alcoholic will tell you they cut their teeth on the stuff that goes down smooth before switching to harder drinks. How long until those same bottle-sipping youngsters are reaching for the Jack and Coke instead?Perhaps I'm overreacting, but how different is it really than the industrial hemp and marijuana debate raging across the country? While both plants are varieties of Cannabis sativa, marijuana is bred to have high levels of THC (the psychoactive ingredient that causes a high) while industrial hemp is grown primarily for fiber and food, which has no or miniscule amounts of THC and is not psychoactive. And yet, both are outlawed. The government argues that allowing farmers to grow hemp would provide a cover for those who want to grow the drug. However, such a tactic would be fruitless as cross pollination of the marijuana plant by the hemp would lower the drug's potency.Despite the obvious distinctions between the drug and the fiber, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), headed by General Barry McCaffrey, the so-called drug czar, appears to remain confused on the issue. In a charge led by the czar himself, the federal government has continued to maintain a ban against growing industrial hemp that slipped onto the record books with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which was meant to outlaw the drug but somehow swept industrial hemp up in the mix, thereby classifying an agricultural crop as a Schedule I drug (the most dangerous type). The North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC), a trade association dedicated to reestablishing the cultivation and use of hemp in this country, has been lobbying to repeal the ban and have hemp declassified a a drug, but has so far met with resistance on the federal level.Never mind hemp's roots in this country's history - Thomas Jefferson grew it and drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper and Betsy Ross' famous flag was made of the stuff - and forget the fact that it has been cultivated for more than 7,000 years for food and fiber. The recent rediscovery of hemp stems from its huge variety of uses (more than 25,000 products can be made from it) and its environmentally friendly, easy-to-grow nature. Hemp can be used to make everything from coffee to body lotion to cardboard and fuel.While cannabis' status as a weed has given it notoriety, what that really means is that it grows quickly with very few chemicals or pesticides. Plus, its strong fibers are more recyclable that paper products made from trees. Companies from Reebok to Calvin Klein to the Body Shop and BMW have found out what the U.S. government knew during World War II when they enlisted farmers to plant the crop to produce ropes, tents and parachute cord during their "Hemp for Victory" campaign - that industrial hemp produces a technically superior product that can be widely used and can help a population in need - in this case U.S., farmers who desperately need an alternative to their primary crops of corn, soybeans and wheat, which have dropped dramatically in price recently. Ask farmers in the 30 industrialized nations, including France, Germany, England and Canada, where hemp cultivation is legal and they'll explain that it's useful in everything from feedstock to fuel to high fiber, healthy food for humans.And yet, the ONDCP, while finally admitting that marijuana and industrial hemp are two different things, continues to argue that using industrial hemp "sends the wrong message" to America's youth, that legalizing it would create problems for law enforcement agencies who would have to differentiate between species of cannabis, and that growing the plant holds no significant economic potential for the country.Andy Kerr, NAIHC treasurer, thinks there's a problem with the feds' logic. "The mounties the gendarmes and the bobbies can all tell the difference, why can't cops?" he says. "And it sends the wrong message to American youth? What's the credibility of the message when American youth know hemp ain't marijuana?"As for the economic issues, not only is such a judgment beyond the expertise of McCaffrey's office, a number of studies, including one by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Products Laboratory, estimate that industrial hemp could bring farmers a return of $200 an acre or more.Kerr says his organization is trying to shine a light on the government's credibility problem. Ironically, with all their protestations the government is contributing to interest in hemp products."A measurable portion of interest in industrial hemp is because of the cachet it has as the forbidden product," Kerr explains.As McCaffrey continues to lose his war on drugs, even his stance against marijuana as a "gateway" to harder drugs is becoming flimsy. A report released in March, commissioned by his office, found no evidence of such. If marijuana isn't even a gateway drug, what's the worry with industrial hemp? That people will start wearing natural fiber clothing, using environmentally sound products, and other such nonsense?Is this his attempt to punish innocent bystanders to prove some sort of point? Besides keeping farmers from being able to grow a potentially valuable and environmentally sound crop, his all-out war on all things cannabis is wasting taxpayer's money. A report by the Vermont auditor's office looked at the number of "marijuana" plants eradicated by the government each year and found that 99 percent are ditch weed - wild hemp likely left over from the World War II growing efforts. Though figures vary as to just how much is spent on this effort annually, even the DEA cites it as seven million dollars.While logic would dictate that McCaffrey put an end to his war on hemp, that hasn't been enough to sway him in the past, so hemp supporters are relying on more serious actions to turn the tides.A number of states, including Montana, Minnesota and Virginia are passing initiatives to overturn the ban. While they are more political than policy statements at this point, such actions are putting pressure on the federal government, which soon may have no choice but to lift the ban.Representative Cynthia Thielen of Hawaii has a bill pending that has strong support from the governor, state department of public safety, and others, and which she hopes will make it through the state senate soon. It took a great deal of work to get to this point, especially since the local DEA director was actively lobbying state legislators against hemp, which is illegal for a federal bureaucrat to do. (His efforts were quelled after a U.S. senator inquired about the behavior.)If the bill passes in the state it will need DEA support, which Thielen says they will have to give, as safety concerns will already have been addressed and there will therefore be no rational reason for them to reject it. If they act "arbitrarily," she says, a Congressional delegation will have to intervene.If things go as planned, a federal decision could come in time for crops to be planted by next spring, which could make Hawaii the first state in the nation to grow hemp."I think once we get past the hysteria and put seeds in ground and the world doesn't end then the rest of the United States will have a chance to grow industrial hemp like a normal ag crop, which is what it is, just like corn," she says.On the national level, petitions filed with the DEA and the USDA by the NAIHC in conjunction with the Resource Conservation Alliance, (consumer advocate Ralph Nader's organization), to both get hemp descheduled as a drug and to establish a registration framework to ensure hemp growing is not used as a cover for drug activities, await attention.While the DEA's official position is that they're reviewing the petition, Kerr suspects they're dragging their feet. If they don't respond in a reasonable amount of time, or if they act in a capricious manner, legal action will be taken."We're laying a trap for them," Kerr says, "but under the law the process goes slowly."Luckily there are other formidable forces exerting pressure as well. James Woolsey, former CIA director under President Bush, has gotten on the hemp bandwagon in the interest of national security. Woolsey sees hemp as the foundation of a bio-based economy that would reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.With so many opponents McCaffrey is in a precarious position as his arguments against legalizing hemp are chipped away. Rumors are swirling that he may be on his way out as drug czar, which may set the stage for changes, as it's believed that forces behind the throne are more amenable to lifting the ban. With support mounting its time for the federal government to reassess their stance, or they may soon be the ones to take a big hit.Michelle Holcenberg is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

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