In the coming weeks, state legislators will have the opportunity to either blaze a trail toward cannabis legalization or pass on the grassroots movement altogether.
A bill authored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, in support of industrial hemp production in Minnesota is making its way through House committees.
Passing the Legislation could bring research opportunities to the University and economic benefits for farmers who call the crop a potential cash cow, with a number of practical uses in products like paper, plastic and clothing.
The movement has seen the strongest support in the North Dakota Legislature, Kahn said, and has been spearheaded by a Republican farmer who she made a point to say “couldn’t be more different from me.”
“This isn’t a liberal, inner-city plot to do bad things for the state,” Kahn said at an Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the bill last week.
The bill would modify the state’s definition of marijuana – distinguishing plants used in hemp and those for drug use – and support the development and regulation of an industrial hemp industry.
But legislation signed into law by former Gov. Jesse Ventura mandates a change in federal policy toward hemp must take place before state laws can change.
Kahn said her bill would be a step in the right direction, and would make the state ready to move forward with hemp production if federal policies change.
Currently, Drug Enforcement Administration rules stand in the way of the bill coming to fruition. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government doesn’t distinguish between hemp and marijuana plants.
Attempts to challenge the act are nothing new, DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite said.
“The definition is very, very clear,” she said. “That’s where we stand.”
The bill would define hemp as all types of cannabis with less than .03 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, the plant’s psychoactive element.
However, at an Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last week, George Weiblen, a professor of plant biology at the University, said .03 percent THC is typical for hemp.
A marijuana plant would contain 2 to 25 percent THC, Weiblen said during his presentation at the hearing, in support of the bill’s passage. He said a hemp industry could have a number of everyday uses.
Hemp could be used as an alternative for oil-based plastics and another source of biofuel, he said.
Weiblen also said hemp byproducts could be used to produce clothing, because it requires less chemical input than cotton. It could also be grown in Minnesota, unlike cotton, he said.
Since hemp research has lacked due to legal restrictions on the plant, not much is known about what other benefits could come from the bill’s passing, said Abel Ponce de León, associate dean of research at the College of Food, Agricultural and Nature Resource Sciences.
“We would have never thought to use the prairie to produce energy, and now we’re talking about that,” he said. “It only depends on the imagination.”
The prospect of having a relatively low-maintenance crop that could serve many purposes has brought support from a number of farm groups, including the Farmers Union, but the Department of Agriculture has yet to take a position on the issue.
The committee passed the bill last week to the public safety committee, where it awaits further discussion.