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Natural Foods Retailer Nutiva Challenges DEA, Embraces Hemp

In August 1999, the U.S. Customs Service -- acting on a Drug Enforcement Administration order -- seized a Canadian hemp-food exporter’s truck with 20 tons of hemp seeds entering Detroit from Ontario. The nongerminating seeds, en route to U.S. natural food businesses, have always been legal to import, though illegal to grow without a DEA permit since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. In addition to the truck seizure, the agency, which declines to comment on its then unprecedented move, ordered the exporter’s American customers to fork over previous orders of seed and other hemp-food products.

The demand put Sebastopol (Calif.) hemp-food retailer Nutiva in a tough spot. Founder John Roulac had launched the business earlier that month, investing $30,000 in two tons of seed and other hemp-food products with the goal of turning the legal, nonpyschoactive plant often confused with its illegal twin brother, marijuana, into a mainstream food product.