Reefer Madness

Hemp Farming Battle Update

Reefer Madness
Photo By Scott T. Samson

On Nov. 15, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson announced that his state is one step closer to approving and issuing its first-ever hemp-farming license. The announcement followed state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's final sign-off on the state's hemp-farming rules, signaling that they are in compliance with state law. For nearly a decade, North Dakota has been at the forefront of the push to reauthorize hemp farming, as state lawmakers – from both parties – have worked to craft laws that would allow North Dakota's farmers to cultivate industrial cannabis, the non-narcotic cousin of marijuana that contains just trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. When the rule finally takes effect, North Dakota will be first in line to challenge the near virtual ban on industrial-hemp farming imposed by the feds in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act and championed with myopic vigor by the Drug Enforcement Administration since the 1970s with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act.

Hemp cultivation was an integral part of the American farming economy from colonial times (when it was illegal not to grow) through the mid-Thirties, when reefer madness took hold and federal narcos – and not the Department of Agriculture – were given the authority to also regulate industrial hemp, a move that in turn has led to the near total ban on cultivation of the environmentally friendly crop. (Hemp fibers are among the strongest and have been used to make a variety of products – from paper, clothing, and sails to, in more modern times, composite panels used in a variety of cars, including the Ford Explorer, Dodge Viper, and BMW 3 series.)

According to the Governmental Accountability Office, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without an established hemp crop. And at the center of the ongoing prohibition is the DEA – which has the power to grant, deny, or to simply ignore any and all requests from farmers and researchers who wish to grow the plant. Agricultural, environmental, and scientific reality aside, the federal narcos cling blindly to the idea that legalizing non-narcotic hemp would somehow encourage the covert production of marijuana – a myth long since discredited, in large part because cross-pollination would degrade any marijuana planted nearby to the point of being worthless as a drug. Nonetheless, the DEA has so far only ever granted one permit to grow hemp, which has since expired. North Dakota – an intensely agricultural state whose farmers produce a vast majority of some of the nation's top cash crops, including canola and sunflower – has been on the leading edge of the hemp reauthorization movement, but its farmers have been frustrated by the DEA, which has yet to hand down any formal, final decision on a late-Nineties request by North Dakota State University researchers for permission – pursuant to state law – to grow a test plot of hemp.

Still, renewed interest in the sustainable crop continues to grow; since the Nineties, more than a dozen states have passed various laws – either to reauthorize hemp cultivation (though without the stringent controls and determination found in the North Dakota rules) or to authorize expenditures to study the crop and its economic potential. In a true display of Midwestern fortitude, North Dakota's farmers and lawmakers have remained undaunted by federal prohibitionists of questionable agricultural expertise, and this year officials, led by Johnson, were finally successful in crafting a state law to regulate and permit farmers to grow the crop. Patterned on the Canadian hemp farming law (Canada reauthorized hemp farming in 1997), the North Dakota rules require farmers to consent to criminal background checks, to provide geopositioning coordinates for their hemp crops, and to plant hemp seed proven to contain less than .3% THC – among other regulations.

With Stenehjem's approval, the final rules now move to the state's Legislative Council for final adoption, meaning North Dakota will soon be ready to license its first hemp farmers. That will bring the state one step closer to what will likely be an inevitable legal battle with the DEA. Under the new rules, North Dakota farmers licensed by the state to grow the crop still need to ask the DEA for permission to do so (a caveat that keeps the state law separate from, yet in compliance with, federal law) – and they're unlikely to back down if the DEA denies or ignores their requests. Unless the DEA backs down, this promises to be a fiercely fought battle, pitting the steady-as-she-goes determination behind North Dakota's agricultural prowess against the hemp-is-pot illogic of federal narcos, which could – once and for all, one would hope – lay bare the inappropriateness of granting a law enforcement agency the final authority over a purely agricultural concern with a vast economic implication. In other words, it will be a battle not to be missed.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

hemp farming, North Dakota, Roger Johnson, Wayne Stenehjem, tetrahydrocannabinol, Marihuana Tax Act, Controlled Substances Act

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