The Hawaii Industrial Hemp Project 1999-2003
“The official said that the farm bill doesn't explicitly authorize the importation of hemp seeds -- rather, it discusses their growing and cultivation. Given that it is illegal to import hemp seeds, the DOJ official did not offer a recommendation on where or how states participating in the hemp program could obtain seeds.”
--Ryan Grim & Matt Ferner. DEA Seizes Kentucky's Hemp Seeds Despite Congressional Legalization. Huffington Post 05/14/2014
Epstein (Agency of Fear) describes the origins of the DEA in the cesspool of operatives that brought us Watergate. Gordon Liddy recognized that the youths who were tending to get in the way at that historical moment had a vulnerability in their appetites for chemicals besides ethanol. “Drugs,” when you control the definition, are a political weapon. In the years that followed, through the rise of the “War on” by Reagan, the relegation of substances into classes according to the opprobrium of the ruling class—carefully setting aside their favorites—was the principle weapon for ostracizing, marginalizing and ultimately incarcerating vestiges of “The Sixties.” They had got in the way of the business of war and war is the principle business of America.
It's been said that the best way to ensure a problem will flourish is to dedicate a federal agency to it. Another truism borne out by the decades since the DEA's creation is “the harder the laws, the harder the drugs.” It's difficult to explain the DEA's survival with a stipend in the billions in the face of such abject failure as has been their effort to deal with “drugs.” Difficult, if you subscribe to the notion that the Agency's existence ever really was about mitigating the impact of seductive poisons on culture. The DEA was created for a political purpose: intrusion. It has served that purpose well. It has played a vanguard role in the shredding of constitutional protections of individual liberty: SWAT, piss in a bottle, stop and frisk, union busting, and the general militarization of domestic police forces.
Internationally, the Drug War has been “politics by other means” in US relations with Latin American and Asian countries. Drugs provided the “weapons of mass destruction” cover to the invasion of Panama and incarceration of its president in an American prison. The Drug War is only a failure if you think it's about the substances. The DEA had “an understanding” with the CIA, ferchrissake! So soon we forget the ordeal of Gary Webb, the shame of the Mercury.
My cynical attitude toward the DEA and the Drug War wasn't born of my immersion in the subject when—fleeing the chemical takeover of the commercial seed industry that had employed me as a corn geneticist for two decade—I took up with hemp in the early 90s. I had it all along, being, for all intents and purposes, one of those aforementioned vestiges, bud-sport of a generation. I mean, I used the lyrics to Imagine as a lesson for my ESL students! Just sayin'. But in the decades that followed the end of my self-imposed exile, substantive change remained a constant “five years” away. A shelf-full of books was published over the years, each pulling back the curtain on some aspect of drug war duplicity—Dan Baum, Eric Schlosser, Gary Webb—books read by me and the others who agreed, having as much impact as those of decades earlier which did the same. So the war went on, with DEA as “enforcer” and ONDCP as “propaganda.” Drugs took over when the Cold War expired. Hollywood played its part defining good and evil; the media, theirs, by steering clear. I could see the big picture. That's not always a good thing.
When I arrived in Hawaii, there was much exaltation. The passing of “Act 305” created the Hawaii Industrial Hemp Research Project. There was a Millennial anticipation; a corner had been turned, five years finally ended, Bill Murray wakes: “something's different.” That was the Camelot moment. It was brief. Clinton was still in office; Janet Reno was Attorney General. It was pre-9/11.
I was called to service by Hawaii State Representative Cynthia Thielen, the sponsor of Act 305, who had found a funder. I came loaded for bear. My first question was, “Are we doing Civil Disobedience?” (Say yes, please. Yes! Please say “Yes!”)
“No. Absolutely not!” Representative Thielen—Cynthia—informed. “Legal.” I would have to remove the barber's bowl.
We were going to meet the beast and stick our heads in its mouth. No comfortable intellectual distance, no big picture: rubber meets road. I was tasked with setting up a DEA-approved facility in which I could grow Cannabis. We said, “industrial hemp.” They said, “Cannabis. Call it what you will.”
When the Governor signed the bill into law on July 7, 1999, a date was set—December 14—which would be “Industrial Hemp Day” in the islands. On that day, a Tuesday, we would plant the first seeds. I had six months to erect a facility that was agricultural yet complied with the drug control specifications of US Dept of Justice 21 CFRCH.11 DEA Section 1301.71. We were going to grow hemp, a Schedule One Controlled Substance.
“Grow,” of course, is not a word you'll find in the Controlled Substances Act. Neither is “plant,” either as verb or noun. Or “seed.” In fact, that there is anything biological about some substances is completely conflated under the verb “manufacture” with the production of purified pharmaceuticals.
How would the head honcho coming from the LA Regional DEA office that held Hawaii in its hegemony answer for this Orwellian subterfuge when he came to inspect my construction? And what about the unbridled growth of the private prison industry, huh?! What about that?! The Devil was coming and I intended to hold his feet to the fire. Me, being me, David—and Elah sounds Hawaiian—this chance would never come again.
“Let me do the talking,” Cynthia said, as we prepared to meet the DEA man. The Vale of Elah was a working class restaurant in downtown Wahiawa, near to our selected site at Dole (the green rectangle ruins of which are still seen from Google Earth). The rest of the event is a blur as the Devil's spell had me in an instant. What a nice guy! Smooth, with that unctuous comfort with power of a career federal bureaucrat, or consigliere. Nice of him to come out to Hawaii to make sure all was copacetic. Someone upstairs had said to let us do this, he had his marching orders. But it does leave one curious: what went down? What went down between the the first knee-jerk that branded our application with one word, handwritten on the cover (retrieved by Don Wirtshafter by FOIA): “deny”--what arms were twisted, what role did Inouye play? Governor Cayetano wrote to Clinton and Reno. Something moved. Word came down. We'll never know. Maybe they thought we couldn't pull it off, they had nothing to lose. Besides, we weren't challenging authority, we were validating it: the enclosure, the security, the permits.
Permits? The key permit was the DEA 225, the permit to possess a specified controlled substance. To get that you first must have the permit issued by your state. So first it was necessary to get the State Narcotics permit, the terms of which are that you do what the feds say.
Once the physical facility was ready, the State inspected, issued its permit and then I could proceed to the federal level. Others can verify that S.O.P. at the DEA is “deny.” Months were lost in the wrangling, but I had other fish to fry before December 14.
I couldn't whip up a batch of my controlled substance in a lab. My controlled substance happens to be seed.
As I have been writing this, local news in Kentucky is telling of the tussle going on over imported hemp seed. The DEA seized seed coming from Italy and blocked seed from Canada. Advocates wanting to get on with planting point to the recent Ag Bill which says States can undertake research, seemingly free of the DEA permitting process. The DEA said, "Not so fast." You need our permit to import a controlled substance. Farm Bill said nothing about importation.
And that's true. The authors of the Bill overlooked the loss of the germplasm that necessitates going abroad for seed. Of course, the DEA can't claim ignorance of that need, not after the Hawaii Project. It's fifteen years later. There hasn't been another hemp planting in the US since the Hawaii Project. Now, hemp is in the news again, as the anticipated Age Wave is sweeping through American politics and the hemp's current champion is the ultra-conservative, Tea Party favorite, Rand Paul, who as I write has drop kicked the Oldhead establishment through the goal post of his 2016 presidential bid. Politicians love code words and hemp makes strange bedfellows. The Project was visited in 2000 by Ralph Nader, after which a disparaging pundit wrote of Nader, “He's in favor of industrial hemp, fercrissake.” (Always ahead of his time.) The press quoted Kentucky Ag Commissioner James Comer regarding KY's impasse with the DEA over the importation from Italy. What Comer told the press was that the DEA said, “Make us an offer.”
Make us an offer, just don't question our authority. Did CIA director Wilson make them an offer when they agreed to look the other way about the cocaine? This flexibility is not new. I'm reminded of what Bonnie and Whitebread mention in The Marihuana Conviction (1972):
One provision of the [Import And Export] act reveals a curious lapse of memory between 1937 and 1956 regarding the origins of marihuana. Congress finally got around to amending the Import and Export Act, creating a new offense of smuggling marihuana, and mere possession was made sufficient evidence to convict the possessor of knowingly receiving or concealing imported marihuana. This presumption was based on two suppositions—that marihuana traffic depended upon importation from Mexico and that possessors were likly to be aware of that fact... Commissioner Anslinger estimated that 90 percent of all marihuana in the country had been smuggled from Mexico.
[Bonnie and Whitebread. 1972. The Marijuana Conviction. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.]
All this “drug” business seems highly flexible, but not very democratic.
The hinterland is lost. Colorado is just growing, without significant restriction. But the Achilles' Heel for hemp is and has been that improved varieties of hemp are now only to be found beyond American borders, and the DEA can exert a strangle at that nexus. They have to, or what are they? Diversion control, it's called. So every time some US researcher wants to get agronomic varieties for trials, they have to seek a new permit for the import of a controlled substance, and, oh, btw, a prereq of that permit is the DEA225. That, for a non-drug which is ipso facto not “divertible.”
I didn't—and don't—know why we were accommodated. The right people wanted to, for their reasons. All politics is local and that's demographics. Is this not what Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell understand, their sincere affection for industrial hemp notwithstanding?
In Hawaii, none of the rules as specified in CFR 1301.70ff were presented to us as negotiable. Yet it was clear, we were being given a pass, as long as we made a good faith effort to pay obeisance to the regs. As long as we were no threat to their legitimacy, they'd indulge us. Political winds blow erratically. Two years into the project it was a Bush Administration and 9-11. Then, after operating without incident, the Project was broken into and the carefully assembled germplasm collection was stolen. The Man made another trip to the islands. The new MOU was less accommodating, less willing to ignore that I didn't actually keep the seed in a safe—it was the box off a step truck—because actually it's quite hard to properly preserve seed in a safe given the temperature and humidity control a living entity requires for long term preservation. Actually. But now if I wanted another permit, I had to get a safe, plus a bunch of other security upgrades. But there would be no securing of the place. The location of the Hemp Project didn't long stay a secret. Anyone could find it. And anyone could—and eventually did—park unseen in the pineapple field at midnight and follow the short trail to the site.
Drug laws are written for synthetic chemicals. Security, storage, inventorying, are conceived around the notion that the entity is a purified chemical, in vials. Not something capable of reproduction and growth, respiration and death. The special conditions of temperature and humidity required when storing respiring seed don't factor into the stipulation that the “substance” be kept in a safe. Nor that a quarter acre of soil under the open sky is hard to secure with infrared beams shot 180 feet as though it were your garage door sensor. Infrared beams might work fine inside an architectural structure, but they are ridiculous in an agricultural field. Besides, geckos found the beam housing terrific for nesting. The service man who made that call—one of many to deal with false alarms—opened the housing and a hundred lizards burst out.
But the impracticality of the law when it comes to things grown and living isn't just an artifact of an inadequate bureaucractic mindset. The avoidance of language appropriate to horticulture is Orwellian: plants are “substance;” to plant is “propagate; and to grow is “manufacture.” No mention of planting seeds or growing plants; no harvest; no “germplasm.” But if you construct a fence—cyclone with barbed-wire topping, ten feet tall to keep out intruders—best consider what will keep them from burrowing under it. Call it what you will, “industrial hemp”—in a baggie—on Waikiki—dumb tourist—$100 and never seen again. This is rubber meeting road. Let's call this Take-Home Lesson #1: Call it what you will, you're going to need security. But I'd go with geese. A mean dog. Guard with gun.
Sitting in the cafe in Wahiwa, in the islands, fifteen years ago, about to enter the complete unknown yet being shown how to fill in controlled substance requisition forms by the DEA's top man in the Pacific, who stooped to conquer, I had a little Indiana Jones moment. The one where's he's being chased by the boulder. I started running and ran till December 14. Things got done. The fence, the security system as specified. It consisted of posts in each corner of the quarter-acre rectangle that carried the beam sensor/emitters. If the beam was crossed, a radio-transmitted signal (of course there was no phone line and this is the early days of cellular) went to the base, and I got a call. In theory. We had electricity and water. Oh wait! What?! No electricity?! No buried wire?! I have to run a security system! You said...!
Working in the islands brings its own special character to any endeavor. I installed solar panels and forged on. We passed the inspections, got stamped and certified and the day arrived. Media and dignataries and a Kahuna under whose tea leaf I planted hemp seed ceremoniously. December 14 was a Tuesday in 1999. Cynthia felt it was important to plant before the end of the millennium. I said, “A'hem...” but that was all. My seed arrived from Canada the previous Thursday. It was close but I shot the curl. Hawaii is about surfing and I had caught my big wave. Wahoo!
Then everyone was gone, party was over. I surveyed my domain: a 60' x 180' fenced in patch of laterite near the town of Wahiawa on land owned by Dole Pineapple.
I bought a tiller. I bought a trailer. My 4x4 Dodge Raider was multipurpose, car/truck/tractor/escape pod. I hauled loads of steaming compost. The slugs took what seed the birds didn't. I may have wanted to ask the DEA, “Isn't it the case that Prohibition is just a way to impose scarcity on an otherwise abundant commodity so that price will find what the market will bear?” but such high falootin' indignation had no place as I gazed on my hardscrabble and wondered how I would ever establish plots, replicatable plots, the stuff of the breeding biz. I had no planter. No means to plant organized plots of the differing varieties. There were some things I knew, and had mentioned repeatedly to blank stares: cannabis is photoperiod driven. I knew these plants of northern European origin would measure the 12 hour nights of Hawaii and trigger almost immediately their shift to reproductive mode. “Photoperiod is everything,” I told them.
Once I did get viable plots established—an impractical but effective fix for the birds, copious magnesium sulfate (Epsom's Salts) for the slugs—the plants finished off under 2 feet tall in about 2 months. “So there,” I said. “See what I mean.” Since I had anticipated this, I built a planter that would lay the seed very thickly. The hemp grew much like flax. One of the varieties, a Romanian cultivar named Lovrin, stood apart in that it grew 3 feet and looked very flax-like with its skinny stems.
But not the promise of fields of 12 foot stalks seen in the old pictures of the Wisconsin industry. It's photoperiod again. This time in reverse. A man named Andrew Wright in Wisconsin back around 1910 had recognized that varieties that bore seed in Kentucky's growing season, would prolong their vegetative phase (and thus the growth of the stalk which was the economic value of the fiber crop) in Wisconsin, 10 degrees further north, where summer nights were even shorter. From that time on, Kentucky grew the seed, and Wisconsin produced the fiber, till 1958.
Back then, seed was used for planting. The old Russian babushka knew about the nutritional value of hempseed and made “black butter” for her family. In the US, little use was made of the seed except as birdseed. Yields weren't particularly high (~700#/acre) so all the seed went for planting. Today, that has reversed. Hemp has become more valued for its seed than its fiber. I speculated that rapid flowering might be a good thing: a nutritious seed in a couple months. I suggested hemp might be used thus in refugee situations. To date, no aid organization has rushed to plant hemp in refugee camps, though I still rather like the idea.
But that wasn't the goal in Hawaii. (What was the goal in Hawaii? “Grow hemp.”) I wondered about that, so I asked: “What is the magic use? I mean, what would you like me to demonstrate this crop can do that would so impress that you would say 'Let them grow!'” Let's see: utilitarian fiber in its stem; check. Nutritious seed? Check. Weed controller? Check. Improves soil? Check. Plastics? Fuel? Check. Check. It wasn't going to be easy to come up with a swell new contribution from this plant if that wasn't enough. “What if it could replace graphene in high performance batteries?” Darn. Wish I'd had that one!
But it just didn't matter. It was all theatre anyway. And my stage was this quarter-acre piece of scrub where I had complete license and a finite amount of money and a chance to play with my art that was as weird and wacky and wonderful as it was ever likely to get. I didn't like the idea of the fence, but I liked the fence. I moved inside. Bought a van to sleep in, built a solar-powered drier to dry the crop that doubled as living/office/work space, added a wind generator and more solar panels. And I sent a guy to China to get me seed. Later, I got seed from Japan.
Plant breeding is a profession that has been art much longer than it has been science. Seed is a plant breeder's medium. We refer to it as germplasm, the physical seed is just a package. Germplasm is a box of Legos. From germplasm, the breeder assembles plants fitter for human use. It's all about seed.
Germplasm is the problem, and it's the one that unites this shard of personal biography—which otherwise was destined to be little more than that (“What was Grampa doing in Hawaii?”) —with current events. Since I took up with this issue two decades ago, my rant has been consistent: seed! We lost the seed!
Hawaii certainly didn't have any—not hemp, plenty of pakalola (a constituency dubious of my project). Tales that hemp had ever grown there are apocryphal. Hemp is temperate in adaptation. Hemplands across the globe cluster close to 45degrees (+/-10), the latitude that crosses where I live in Wisconsin and where hemp was well-adapted. We don't have any seed either, except for the feral remnant of that old industry.
I had to get my seed from Canada. And Canada had to get it from Europe. I could go into how we got ourselves into this predicament, but I've covered that elsewhere. Because we were complying dutifully with the letter of the law, I needed the extra permit from the DEA, the one that let me bring a controlled substance into the country. This is the permit they were screaming about this Spring when Kentucky Ag Commissioner James Comer attempted to import seed from Italy. The seed was impounded, as the DEA scrambled to enforce its jurisdiction over the international borders. There is ambiguity in the recent Farm Bill that called for research on hemp but overlooks what happened to the germplasm bred at the USDA. The hemp germplasm that they were charged to preserve was neglected and lost so contemporary researchers have to reach beyond US borders to get seed of agronomic varieties. And it wouldn't be the old Kentucky Hemp variety. Hence, Italy; where they, too, came dangerously close to losing their traditional germplasm.
So now it's May 19, 2001. They were quite sophisticated. They broke the locks with the technique of flash freezing the metal and whacking it, known to those skilled in the art. Liquid nitrogen, or I hear butane can be used, too. They broke into the shed and took the seed that was in the seed storage unit, aka, refrigerator. They didn't take the moldy samples that I'd bleached and thrown high on a shelf after they'd failed to germinate. (The accessions from China were of mixed quality. A few samples were dead.)
Things had been going swimmingly. Since the planting ceremony I'd overcome a plethora of obstacles. Now I had flourishing plots of two or three foot tall hemp covering the gamut of germpools: hemp from Europe, hemp from China and even a heterogeneous mix in a sample from Japan. Would that it were the traditional Japanese hemp. But that germplasm is closely guarded. This sample was highly variable of the grade we call “floor-sweepings.” Yet, within this plot had emerged two quite distinct plants. One of these the thieves broke and took. (How did they know it was the potent one?) The other continued to grow. And grow.
So let's put this in a little perspective. Cannabis is photoperiod driven. Northern-adapted varieties flower prematurely in tropical latitudes. So through the legerdemain of the plant breeder's art and the blessings of St Mendel, I wanted to pull together traits from disparate sources that would give me the “adaptation” that would be needed if it were ever to be a crop at Hawaii's latitude. What I wanted then was a “donor” of the genetics of a different photoperiod response. This plant was that donor, a buzz-less, tropical cannabis. Providence smiled and it was a she. She grew for nine months, surrounded by the pollen-spewing plots of European and Chinese genetics. In plant breeding jargon, I “got the cross.”
Meanwhile, the DEA put me in a drawer. I had been given a new Memorandum of Understanding which required numerous security upgrades. I worked on them. Days go by. Being in the drawer is not so bad. I can't get my new shipment out of China because I don't have a viable 225 pending the completion of the upgrades and re-inspection, but it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. I have the fecund female around which I built a cage to exclude the birds. And once I had her seed, I didn't need any more imports. I needed time. Time to do the grow-out, get the intermating, establish the breeding population and plant that. This is the cyclic process of plant breeding. Introduce selection into the mix and fashion new varieties. But this is where you start. Get the cross. Because the birds were my nemesis, I used the convenient ten foot fence to hang netting under which I established the breeding nursery. Inside this enclosure, the first generation progeny grew, intermated and yielded up the next generation. At that point, a competent breeding operation with millions of dollars to spend needed to step in. That wasn't going to happen. The site had succeeded in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but it's utility was spent. Security was a joke. On the night I found myself peering through the back windows of the van at 2AM trying to determine if I saw figures moving in the shadows while I gripped the machete in my hand, I knew the project had run its course.
So there it was. I had done what I came to do. The next generation threw out the full gamut of morphologies, from squat, photoperiod-sensitive ones, to plants still growing at ten feet when I shut things down. This is the point at which serious breeding could start. But it wasn't going to. While I was absorbed in my plants, the Presidency passed to George Bush and the towers went down. A chill wind blew. After the upgrades were completed, it took months for them (the “D-E-lay”) to get around to the inspection. Then it took a few more to process the application which was backdated so that when it came it's expiration date was in one month. But it just didn't matter. It was time. I cut and fallowed the field. No controlled substance could remain. And on a day in September, 2003, Joe—my on-island DEA guy—and his decidedly strange partner, came and we ground up seed with barely a hint of bleach. For guys used to suiting up before a call, the Hemp Project was ice cream. We always got along fine.
The Hawaii Industrial Hemp Project accomplished its goal, though it played to an empty house. Here is how hemp does in Hawaii. Here's what you do about it: watch, should you ever wish to do this again. And, lo and behold, they do.
I came home to Wisconsin and collated all the digital imagery into a "movie" of sorts. I show it to interested parties (Plant Breeding 101). In Kentucky, they're getting ready to harvest. They fought with the DEA but they got their seed and no fencing required, no infra-red. In Colorado, it's the Wild West. “We don't need no stinkin' permits.” The interior appears lost but the DEA hangs on to it hegemony at the border. Which is probably good, because why else would there even be a domestic marijuana industry? The DEA's obstruction is a de facto tariff. I mean, what if the US could import ganja from Jamaica, hash from Afghanistan? An agricultural import. Could we strain our imaginations to conceive how we might bring some peace to that ancient land? But that would interfere with the military-industrial guys.
So we've come full circle.
Enough time has passed now for nostalgia to displace memory when it's 15 below in Wisconsin. Some work of noble note perhaps was done. Now, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, I wait to be asked, “Grampa, what were you doing in Hawaii?”