COSTA MESA — For a brief few months this year, Chris Boucher was the first American entrepreneur in nearly half a century to grow hemp legally in the United States. By the end of July, he was the last.
Boucher, 32, owns the Costa Mesa-based Hempstead Co., which imports hemp fabric from China and Hungary and fashions it into backpacks, clothing, caps and accessories sold at more than 1,000 stores nationwide. Only a few of his products are emblazoned with the marijuana leaf that has made hemp the pariah of textiles in the United States. Hemp is Cannabis sativa, the same plant that produces marijuana.
After winning permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Imperial County Agriculture Commission, Boucher planted one-half acre of genetically engineered hemp seeds last March in the Imperial Valley. His quest was to develop the world's highest-quality hemp and demonstrate the plant's economic potential, while ridding hemp's image of the tarnish of the drug culture.
But with little warning, on July 25 Imperial County narcotics officers plowed under his crop of hybrid hemp on orders from the state attorney general's office. Boucher says state law enforcement officials were worried about setting a precedent.
"They evidently looked at it as a kind of legalization," Boucher said. "Somehow, the state overruled the county and the federal government at the last minute."
Boucher's 16,000 hemp plants were nearing maturity on federally owned land at a U.S. Department of Agriculture station on Highway 86 in Brawley, a scorching hot, sub-sea-level city that offers near-perfect growing conditions for hemp. After years of grappling with the uneven quality and limited supply of hemp fabric from overseas, Boucher sought permission to grow a test crop to prove to U.S. officials that the controversial plant could ignite the agriculture industry with its multiplicity of uses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave permission to its Imperial Valley research facility to proceed with the experiment.
"We aren't asking to legalize the drug," said Boucher, a Laguna Beach resident. "We just want to legalize the industrial use of hemp. We want to establish an industry compliance program, so we can develop a model for this industry."
But Imperial County narcotics officers say the federal Agriculture Department violated state laws by allowing the illegal crop to be grown in Imperial County. They say local children were sneaking into the unguarded field and stealing plants.
Boucher "did have permission, but the circumstances in which he got the permission are under question at this time," said Steve Gossman, commander of the Imperial County Narcotics Task Force. "I work for the state attorney general, and we felt at the time that it was an illegal crop. We plowed that sucker under."
State drug enforcement officials say they believe the federal government clearly overstepped its bounds. And they say an investigation is underway to determine if Boucher should be prosecuted. Although Imperial County Agriculture Commissioner Stephen Birdsal originally approved the experiment, he later rescinded his approval after Gossman contacted him.
"Arrangements were made to grow this with the county agriculture commissioner's approval," Gossman said. "We contacted him and told him our concerns. We decided collectively between the agriculture commissioner and the state attorney general's office to plow it under."
Federal agriculture officials could not be reached for comment.
"Even though that's federal land down there, it's up to the locals to determine what's legal and what's not legal," said Michael Van Winkle, spokesman for the law enforcement division of the California Department of Justice. "Our folks were doing their job down there."
Boucher argues that the amount of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the drug that gives marijuana its potency, is negligible in hemp plants that produce the highest-quality fabric. A person would have to smoke about a pound of the Imperial Valley hemp to feel any effect from the drug, Boucher said.
Hemp was last grown legally in the United States for commercial uses during World War II, because of shortages of raw materials. The U.S. government even produced a propaganda film at the time entitled, "Hemp for Victory."
Inside Boucher's musty, diminutive company offices in Costa Mesa, where bolts of fabric and piles of backpacks, caps and T-shirts are stored, a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence bears a handwritten note claiming that the original document was printed on 100% hemp.
Hemp advocates are big on American history. Boucher says the first American flag, Conestoga wagon covers and the original Levi's jeans were all made of hemp. In 1794, George Washington created incentive programs for farmers to grow hemp, purportedly saying, "Make the most of the hemp seed and sow it everywhere," according to literature circulated by hemp legalization advocates.