Even though more than a dozen U.S. states have either passed legislation or are considering bills making it legal to grow hemp for commercial purposes, the federal law remains steadfastly opposed. The U.S. government does not distinguish between hemp and marijuana, assuming that they are inseparable in the plant Cannabis sativa. Until recently, it was legal to sell, buy and use hemp oil, since the seeds were sterilized to prevent germination; however, if you wanted to grow the plant without fear of federal prosecution, you'd have to pack up and move to Canada, which re-legalized its cultivation in 1998.

The line between growing and using hemp was blurred when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued an interpretive rule last fall stating that under the Controlled Substances Act and DEA regulations, any product that contains any amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a Schedule I controlled substance. According to a statement by the DEA, "If the product does cause THC to enter the human body, it is an illegal substance that may not be manufactured, sold, or consumed in the United States. Such products include hemp foods and beverages that contain THC." So far, personal care products may still be sold in the United States if they contain oil from sterilized cannabis seeds.

How is this affecting the inventory at your local natural products store? Many distributors are confused by the ruling, and the more diligent ones are asking their vendors to provide test results showing their products are THC-free before stocking them on store shelves. The battle between the federal government and hemp advocates is currently being waged in the courtroom. When the DEA issued the ruling in October 2001, the agency instituted a 120-day grace period—which would have expired on February 6, 2002—during which all products were to be disposed of or removed from the United States. After an extension of the grace period by the DEA, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided to let a three-judge panel review the case, with a final decision expected in the next three to nine months. For the latest information about hemp-related products and their legal status, log on to www.dea.gov, www.abouthemp.com, www.votehemp.com and www.hempfood.com.