Activists Dig Into Symbolism in Effort To Legalize Hemp
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
You want to dig a garden, you need a shovel. You want to dig a guerrilla garden of illegal hemp on the front lawn of Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters and get arrested for the cameras, you need a symbol.
Shortly before they all were happily handcuffed Tuesday, the farmers took one look at what the activists had brought to dig with, and just shook their heads.
The symbolic shovels were shiny, chrome-plated affairs, the kind for turning the earth in a Washington photo op, stamped with slogans: "Reefer Madness Will Be Buried." When the shovel blades were experimentally pressed into the mulch outside the group's hotel, they bent like toys.
"You'll have a real hard time getting through the grass," observed Wayne Hauge, 51, a North Dakota farmer whose previous interactions with police amount to a ticket for driving an overloaded truck of lentils. "Not exactly the divot I was thinking of."
But never mind.
Time to leave for the demonstration, the protest, the blow against the empire of DEA regulations.
They piled into a 1985 Mercedes-Benz painted the color of a Granny Smith apple. Its diesel engine had been converted to run on waste cooking oil supplied for free by a restaurant in Columbia Heights. For the adventure, Adam Eidinger, communications director for the advocacy group Vote Hemp and owner of the Mercedes, spiked the cooking grease with waste hemp oil. He was wearing pants, shirt, socks and shoes all made from hemp.
The hemp mobile purred over the Potomac River on the road to Arlington.
Farmers and activists say that industrial hemp, as they call it, will not get you high. It has minuscule levels of THC compared with marijuana. But unlike governments in Canada, Europe and China, the DEA will not allow it to be cultivated in the United States, much less on its own front lawn across from the Pentagon City mall. So the expanding industry, estimated at $360 million annually by advocates, is based on imports.
Hauge has been certified to grow hemp by North Dakota. He thinks the crop will help his fourth-generation family farm thrive. He has a federal case on appeal to force the DEA to yield to the state law.
Also in the car was Will Allen, 73, an organic sunflower and canola farmer from East Thetford, Vt. He has been arrested for protesting the Iraq war, he said. He wants to add organic hemp in rotation with his other crops.
The other passenger, tall and lanky in a pinstripe suit with Alcatraz cuff links, was not a farmer. He was David Bronner, 36, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps in Escondido, Calif.
Dr. Bronner's! That iconically groovy peppermint liquid lather once was practically prescribed for all kids backpacking from Carmel to Katmandu. It was said to be excellent for washing everything from your face to your jeans to your dishes. David is the grandson of the late Emil Bronner, the original soap-meister. The grandfather wasn't really a doctor, but who was going argue with a guy who loaded his soap bottle labels with tiny script imparting heavy philosophical musings about the "All-One"?
Bronner's ponytailed presence on this mission was like the totemic blessing of a previous counterculture upon a new counterculture. Whereas the earlier counterculture was associated mostly with the kind of cannabis that you smoke, the new one has taken up the cause of the kind of cannabis that can go into food, textiles, particle board, automobile panels, biofuel. It's a throwback to the old days, when George Washington grew hemp and the USS Constitution was outfitted with 60 tons of hempen rigging.
Hemp, it turns out, has to do with so, so much.
"It gave the lather an additional smoothness," said Bronner, who put hemp oil in the recipe 10 years ago.
The DEA referred questions about hemp and the protest to the Justice Department, and Justice referred a reporter to its brief in Hauge's case. The government says it is simply enforcing federal drug laws, which do not distinguish among types of the species cannabis sativa. Hauge and another plaintiff lost at the lower federal court level; a ruling on the appeal is pending.
Meanwhile, a handful of state legislatures has approved industrial hemp farming -- but awaits DEA action -- and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has endorsed it.
There was a final huddle on the sidewalk near the DEA building. Besides the six with shovels who planned to be arrested, 15 other supporters came with signs and cameras. They passed around the number of a lawyer to call from jail. Hauge started writing it on a card.
No, said an experienced activist dressed in black. "Write it on your skin."
They chose a patch of lush grass outside the entrance to the DEA Museum in Pentagon City. Sure enough, the shiny shovels bent like toys. The protesters bent them back into shape. The farmers showed the others how to dig small trenches. "One to 1 1/2 inches in moderately moist soil," Hauge had advised earlier.
The seeds were packets of hemp crunch -- toasted hemp seeds imported from Canada, a nutritious snack. Thousands went into the ground.
Private security guards and DEA employees gathered around the gardeners, puzzled.
"Do you have a permit?" asked security contractor David Smith.
"That's what we want is a permit from the DEA," said Bronner.
Smith chuckled at their bendy shovels. "Keep digging, fellas," he said, not unkindly. "You'll be going to jail in a minute."
A DEA guy who wouldn't give his name got on his cellphone to a colleague: "They are digging up the grass and planting hemp seeds."
Arlington police officers gave two warnings and moved in. Hauge walked calmly in handcuffs to a squad car escorted by an officer who was sucking on a lollipop. All six were charged with trespassing and have hearings this week. Then Hauge has 400 acres of chickpeas to harvest back in North Dakota.
Inside the DEA Museum was a display of hemp products that could have come straight from the Hemp Pavilion at the Green Festival last weekend in the Washington Convention Center.
"In the 1600s hemp landed in the Americas where it was used to make rope, clothing, paper," the uncritical DEA exhibit said. "Today hemp fibers are used in clothing and jewelry."
The protesters couldn't have said it better.
The six useless shovels were piled in a carton. Would they go on display? "I don't think so," said a DEA officer. "Evidence." He took pictures of the seeds scattered in the grass.
As for the garden -- no hemp will grow there. The toasting process to render the seeds tasty before importation also makes them inert, as required by law. Nobody was about to risk heavy drug-smuggling charges. The symbol was the thing.