Friday, June 15, 2012
An Escondido businessman lands in a D.C. jail for the cause of legal hemp, while an Oregon senator brings it to the floor of the U.S. Senate.
SAN DIEGO David Bronner walked into the office of his Escondido soap factory Thursday, and his staff gave him a boisterous welcome. Their cheers came two days after Bronner locked himself in a cage in front of the White House, was arrested and sent to jail.
It was another chapter in the long struggle to legalize industrial hemp, a close cousin of the schedule-one controlled substance called marijuana.
Hemp is a fibrous plant that has been used for hundreds of years to make clothing and other fabrics. Today it is also an important part of the soaps David Bronner makes.
Bronner is the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, which manufactures soaps from organic materials. The company spends about $100,000 a year, buying hemp oil from Canada to make their soaps lathery and luxuriant. Bronner estimates that particular cost of doing business would be reduced 20 percent if hemp could be grown domestically.
David Bronner is a tall man with a liberal political agenda. He wears a ponytail and a beard that comes to a sharp point. He has a habit of snapping his fingers as he speaks when he wants to emphasize a point.
This week he mounted an especially elaborate act of civil disobedience when he was brought to the front of the White House in a cage, in which Bronner was displaying hemp plants and extracting oil from their seeds.
D.C. cops responded by cutting through the bars with a circular saw and carting Bronner off to jail.
“I put myself in jeopardy. I did the civil disobedience to try to push it along and try to be a piece of the puzzle,” said Bronner.
Aside from hemp’s industrial uses, it is a cannabis plant related to marijuana that contains small amounts of THC, the chemical that makes you high. That’s why the federal government considers it a controlled substance.
But THC makes up less than one percent of industrial hemp. It makes up five to 20 percent for marijuana. Bronner said comparing marijuana to hemp is like comparing opium to the poppy seeds they put on bagels.
"You know, technically industrial hemp will interbreed with drug varieties of cannabis in the same way a St. Bernard and a Chihuahua will interbreed,” he said.
“But they're very different. The industrial hemp has been optimized for fiber and seed and they are not psychoactive. They can produce no drug high."
"So if I smoke it?" I asked.
"Nothing happens,” he said. “You just get a big headache."
The feds see it differently. A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration said, "The DEA's position is that hemp is a form of marijuana. All marijuana plants contain THC, and it is illegal to grow plants that contain THC."
That’s why hemp is also a schedule-one controlled substance.
Even so, several states have passed laws meant to allow the production of hemp. And now it looks like Dr. Bronner has an ally in the U.S. Senate, who calls the hemp prohibition a “dumb regulation.” He’s Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.
"You're hurting job creation in rural America. You're increasing our trade deficit," Wyden said of keeping industrial hemp illegal.
So Wyden has introduced an amendment to the farm bill.
"It excludes industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana,” Wyden said of his proposed amendment. “It thereby allows hemp farming to be regulated by state permitting programs and bypasses the federal government's long-standing prohibition."
Wyden said the state permitting process would ensure low rates of THC in hemp, and make it clear that marijuana is still illegal. There's no telling what could happen with Wyden's bill, but it does have bipartisan support. Republican Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, is backing it.
Back in Escondido, David Bronner said he is in favor of legalization of all cannabis plants, including marijuana.
"But, you know, while you have that debate about the medical, recreational and spiritual use of cannabis, industrial hemp should not be part of that,” he said.
Bronner said he will need to return to Washington D.C. to answer to charges he faces, for caging himself in front of the White House. But he expects the sentence will be community service.
He joked that maybe he could volunteer at a medical marijuana dispensary.