Hemp opponents are blowing smoke

I almost fell off my chair when I heard that Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe wants to legalize industrial hemp. It’s an idea that makes so much sense, yet it is also so controversial, that I figured no respectable lawmaker would ever propose it.
As you’ve probably heard, hemp (a cousin of marijuana) is what some might call a wonder crop. One acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four acres of trees. Herbicides and pesticides aren’t needed to grow it, and it can be renewed annually (this from the Department of Agriculture). Along with paper, its fibers can be used to make things such as clothing, shoes, rope and particle board. Smoking hemp doesn’t get you high; it just gives you a headache.
Under the legislation, people who want to grow industrial hemp would have to file for permits with the commissioner of agriculture. The hemp could contain only a negligible amount of THC — the chemical that gets you stoned. The growers would be subject to routine checks and surprise inspections. Apparently, industrial hemp is tall and stalky, and pot plants are short and leafy, which means it’d be pretty hard to fool an inspector into thinking you were aboveboard when you weren’t.
But opponents are wringing their hands and making numerous claims about the evils this bill could bring about. They say that if we legalize hemp today, it’s just a matter of time before we legalize marijuana. Since pot is seen as a gateway drug, we may then assume that hemp legalization could lead to a nationwide crack or heroin epidemic.
This is what is called a “slippery slope” argument, and it’s a fallacy.
First of all, the people who support hemp production are not some groovy hippy freaks. We’re talking Roger Moe here, OK? And he’s vehemently opposed to making drugs legal.
“That’s certainly not where I’m coming from,” said the DFLer from Erksine. “I’ve been as tough as anyone in drug legislation and I don’t want to legalize marijuana.”
He said he knows that some people, especially drug enforcement agents, think his bill will send a message that illegal drug use is acceptable. There’s no way to legislate against that perception, he said.
But his legislation can discourage potential pot growers from applying for hemp licenses. As he pointed out, why would people growing illegal substances subject themselves to spot checks by state regulators? It wouldn’t make sense.
Wayne Roques, a spokesman for the International Drug Strategies Institute and a former agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, has other fears. He thinks that law-abiding farmers who grow industrial hemp might not see as much profit as they’d expected. So what will happen?
“When the mortgage payments and the loans come due, they might turn to marijuana trafficking out of desperation,” he argued.
Excuse me? Can you really see someone like Charles (Pa) Ingalls having a bad year and turning to drug trafficking? Give our farmers a little credit. Not to mention the fact that if one was to grow hemp plants along side pot plants, they’d both fail.
Jeanette McDougal, a member of Drug Watch of Minnesota, testified against Moe’s bill when it was introduced in the agriculture committee last month. She said in an interview that hemp and marijuana are virtually identical and that we simply can’t allow farmers to grow illegal drugs.
McDougal is a recovering alcoholic and a former drug addict who has been a member of the “recovery community” since 1969. She also teaches kids about drug prevention at public schools in the Twin Cities. I applaud her ability to overcome her addictions, and I appreciate where she’s coming from. Who would deny that heavy drug use could screw up your life?
But that doesn’t translate into a sound argument against growing a crop that has virtually no THC and that has so many environmental benefits.
Another point made by McDougal, Roques and Patrick Doman, a DEA agent in Minneapolis, is that hemp isn’t a viable crop. They say that it’s labor-intensive and that it doesn’t have a strong demand worldwide. (It is legal in many countries, including Germany, Great Britain and Canada.)
Its viability, or lack thereof, is certainly no reason to make it illegal. Don’t individual farmers have the right to decide if they want to give it a shot?
As many hemp promoters point out, our nation’s history is intertwined with hemp. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew and promoted it, and the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence were printed on hemp paper. Betsy Ross’ American Flag was also made from hemp.
And it looks as though history may repeat itself. Roger Moe is not alone in his quest to revive the crop. He said he’s got support from the likes of farm organizations, the Minnesota Agrigrowth Council and paper industries.
“The wood products industry is really high on it,” he said. (No pun intended, I’m sure.) He added that the logging industry can’t keep up with demand right now and is excited about alternative product sources. Who can argue with cutting down fewer trees?
Moe’s bill passed the agriculture committee and is now set to go to the full Senate. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, has yet to have a committee hearing. She, too, said that the legislation has nothing to do with legalizing pot.
This is not a counterculture attempt to circumvent law and order. It’s a matter of industry, resources and the environment. Don’t let the smoke screens fool you.

Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
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