Reefer Madness

North Dakotans still fighting for hemp-farming approval

North Dakota GOP state Rep. Dave Monson, on his family farm, is the first farmer ever to receive a license to cultivate industrial hemp.
North Dakota GOP state Rep. Dave Monson, on his family farm, is the first farmer ever to receive a license to cultivate industrial hemp. (Photo By Scott T. Samson)

It's been more than a month since North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson penned a request to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, asking that the agency waive individual federal registration for qualified farmers in his state who gain approval to farm industrial hemp, and state officials have yet to hear a peep out of DEA Administrator Karen Tandy – apparently, Tandy hasn't even found the time to acknowledge Johnson's correspondence.*

Still, the cold shoulder from the feds hasn't fazed the North Dakotans, who are used to long, cold winters. With or without Tandy and the federal narcos, North Dakota has continued moving forward with its plans to license individual state farmers to cultivate industrial cannabis – the non-narcotic cousin of marijuana that is easy to grow, and actually rejuvenates the soil – and on Feb. 6 issued the nation's first-ever hemp farming licenses to two farmers there, at least one of whom is ready to push Tandy and her pals into federal court in order to win the right to cultivate the environmentally friendly crop. Indeed, with the results of a criminal background check in hand, the state this week licensed its first farmers – fourth generation North Dakotan Dave Monson, who also serves as a Republican state representative and Assistant House Majority Leader, and farmer Wayne Hauge.

Monson – who for 12 years has represented a district in the northeast corner of the state, just across the border from Canada, where farmers have been growing hemp since the government reauthorized the practice in 1997 – is ready to sow hemp seeds on his family farm, and he'd like to do so this spring.

Monson filled out the state application for a license, pursuant to guidelines codified last fall: He agreed to give the state GPS coordinates for his proposed hemp fields, submitted to a criminal-background check and fingerprinting, and agreed to abide by the other rules state officials put in place, in part as a means to prove to the DEA just how serious North Dakota is about relegalizing the cultivation of industrial cannabis. The state's rules are patterned after those adopted in Canada, which have proven successful – reportedly, not even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have found that hemp farming poses any threat to their enforcement of marijuana prohibition. That's significant, of course, because the main reason DEA officials have offered as to why hemp farming isn't viable is that it's a backdoor way to legalize marijuana and that planting the crop would encourage marijuana growing by offering pot purveyors cover for their crop. While the plants do look alike, hemp plants contain just trace amounts of tetrahydrocannibinol, or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – moreover, agricultural experts point out that planting pot anywhere near hemp wouldn't be such a good idea anyway, since cross-pollination would render the marijuana impotent, a fact the DEA continually ignores. (The late, famed plant breeder Peter Dragla even created a hemp plant that is visually distinct as a means to calm narco concerns that industrial cannabis fields could mask pot growth.)

Of course, the DEA's willful ignorance of agricultural fact is nothing new, but it is nonetheless the greatest hurdle farmers face as they try to re-establish a viable U.S. hemp crop. (As it stands, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without an established hemp crop, according to the Government Accountability Office.) Although the DEA has no agricultural prowess to speak of, federal law – and, specifically, the Controlled Substances Act – offers the narcos final say over whether individual farmers are allowed to cultivate the crop. Indeed, even though North Dakota officials have signed off on Monson's license, Monson will still have to apply to the DEA for permission to sow his seeds. And unless Tandy gets religion and approves Commissioner Johnson's request to waive federal registration for North Dakota farmers, Monson knows he'll have to face off with the feds – a battle that he says he's ready to take to court if necessary.

To date, the DEA has only ever approved one hemp license, to researchers in Hawaii, which has long since expired. Researchers at North Dakota State University have twice in eight years applied for federal permission to grow the plant, but to date the DEA has yet to approve or deny those requests. "I'm prepared to take this to court if DEA refuses to grant a permit in a reasonable amount of time or places onerous restrictions on it," Monson said.

Meanwhile, the seeds of a hemp revolution have begun to germinate in South Carolina, where Republican lawmakers last month entered the fray with a proposal to form a committee to study whether the state should move forward with the "authorization of the cultivation and production of industrial hemp," reports the Savannah Morning News. Rep. Bill Herbkersman's proposal mirrors the hemp-study committee legislation enacted in North Carolina last summer. Herbkersman told the Morning News that he sees hemp farming as a way to reinvigorate the state's textile industry (hemp fibers are among the strongest), as a way to bolster the farm economy and provide an alternative to tobacco cultivation, and as a renewable fuel source (hemp can be processed into fuel in the same way corn is turned into ethanol) that could help reduce "dependence on foreign-based fossil fuels."

All that and more would likely be possible if the DEA would just take that first step, like an addict emerging from the fog, and admit it is, and has been, wrong about hemp – denial only works for so long.


*Oops! Due to a miscommunication with the office of North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, Reefer Madness incorrectly reported that, at press time, DEA officials had not yet responded to Johnson's request that the agency waive individual federal registration for state-licensed hemp farmers. In fact, the DEA did respond, on Feb. 2, denying Johnson's request.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Reefer Madness, hemp, North Dakota, Roger Johnson, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, industrial hemp, Karen Tandy, Dave Monson, tetrahydracannibinol, Government, Accountability Office, Controlled Substances Act, South Carolina, Bill Herbkersman

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