Reefer Madness: The Great Capitol Hemp Heist

See what happens when you try to separate a hemp lobbyist from his inner woody hurd fibers?

Reefer Madness: The Great Capitol Hemp Heist
Illustration by Jason Stout

Ben Droz, a legislative assistant for the hemp products industry advocacy group Vote Hemp, was walking through the U.S. Capitol on the way to a series of meetings with Hill staffers on the afternoon of Aug. 11 when he was stopped at an inspection point by Capitol police. They'd run his belongings through the X-ray machine and had one question: What exactly was he carrying in his shoulder bag? Given where he works, the answer should be obvious: hemp. Specifically, he was carrying samples of industrial hemp, the non-narcotic cousin of marijuana. Droz had a variety of hemp products in his bag – hemp seeds (which make good snacks or salad toppers, for example) and hemp fibers (both the long bast fibers, good for making textiles, and the inner, woody hurd fibers, which are good for making certain kinds of paper products).

It wasn't as though this was the first time he'd brought the materials to the Capitol – he carries them regularly when making his rounds, extolling the virtues of hemp to congressional staffers. But it was the first time he'd ever had his stash looked at skeptically. "It didn't look [like anything] bad," Droz recalled in a telephone interview, but "for some reason" the Capitol cop working the machine "said, 'What's this?'" Soon, several officers joined the first, and the group was "talking amongst themselves," Droz said. Droz was unsettled – he was in a hurry and was taken aback by the sudden interest in his goods. The officers finished their powwow, and one addressed Droz: "He said, 'I can't give you this stuff back.'"

Not only that, says Droz, but the officer said what he really wanted to do was just "throw it away." In the end, the officer put it this way: Droz could abandon his property and get on to his appointments, or he could wait until the officers could call a supervisor and have that supervisor weigh in on the issue, with no guarantee that he'd get his goods back. Droz opted for the first option. (He added that none of the officers offered to allow him to retrieve his property when he was leaving the building.)

Thinking back, Droz says that maybe he should have pushed his case, but he was so confused by what happened that he didn't. Misinformation – or, perhaps, propaganda – has been a bane of hemp farming advocates who, like Droz, take pains to explain the difference between the environmentally friendly agricultural commodity that has a broad variety of industrial applications and its illegal cousin, the "evil weed" marijuana. Hemp was an American farming staple until well after World War II (when the federal government actually encouraged farmers to plant the crop). The plant, the cultivation of which dates back thousands of years, was finally marginalized, however, thanks in part to the rise in cotton production (and streamlined procedures for processing the plant), as well as the introduction in the 1970s of the war on drugs. Laws that regulated and then made marijuana illegal sucked industrial hemp into the drain, too.

But efforts to bring hemp farming back to the nation's agricultural landscape continue to grow: Currently, 28 states have introduced pro-hemp legislation, and legal barriers to farming the crop have actually been removed in at least nine states – including North Dakota, where farmers are locked in a legal battle with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which continues to stand in the way of growers with state licenses to cultivate the crop. Hemp is dope, and dope is illegal, the agency argues.

Droz says that argument is clearly faulty: Medical marijuana has been legalized in 13 states, and in at least one (California, where budget woes plague the state coffers) voters will be asked next year to decide whether to legalize, tax, and regulate pot sales. If hemp were marijuana, Droz posits – or if hemp advocates were only extolling the plant's virtues as a backdoor means to legalizing dope – the increasingly national debate on marijuana legalization would include a discussion of hemp. That hasn't happened. "For a while people thought the hemp lobby was just trying to push marijuana," he said. "If hemp was a marijuana issue, we'd be talking about hemp." But, we're not: A bill to reauthorize hemp farming, authored by Texas' own Liberpublican Rep. Ron Paul, has been languishing in the Capitol since 2005. It has yet to be assigned to any relevant committee – such as Agriculture, for example – let alone receive a hearing.

Nonetheless, possession of hemp or hemp-containing products is not illegal (even though the DEA tried to make it so in 2001, a move that was roundly criticized and ultimately rejected by federal judges). In fact, hemp is big, big business: Domestic sale of hemp products has been increasing by double digits every year; sales of hemp foods alone shot up a whopping 40% in 2008. But without a domestic crop, all the products containing hemp – from food to clothing to automotive parts – have to be imported, some from as close as Canada, some from as far away as China. "We're trying to get the issue more out in the open, because the facts kind of speak for themselves," Droz says.

Droz says he's been back to the Capitol with his samples since the Aug. 11 incident but hasn't had any problems with police. (Capitol Police did not return numerous calls from the Chronicle requesting comment. A police spokeswoman did answer one call but said she'd have to find out why the samples were taken, why they weren't returned, and what eventually happened to Droz's property and call back. At press time she still had not done so.)

Vote Hemp would like to meet with Capitol Police to sort out the details of the incident so that it doesn't happen again. (The group, Droz said, would like its own "beer summit" with the Capitol cops – akin to the meeting President Barack Obama held with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge cop who busted him for disorderly conduct in July.) Droz wonders why the Capitol Police were "confused" about what he was carrying: "It's just hemp. That's really the issue we need to clarify for the Capitol Police and for the public."

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Reefer Madness, industrial hemp, Ben Droz, U.S. Capitol, Vote Hemp, marijuana, DEA

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