Hemp bill gains support

Researchers and farmers could soon benefit from growing hemp.

Logan Wroge

State legislators want to realign hemp laws in Minnesota with a recent federal change that helps researchers study the plant.

The Minnesota Industrial Hemp Development Act introduced last month would redefine ‘hemp’ based on drug content and authorize a pilot program for the growth, cultivation and research of the crop.

“It is extremely difficult for researchers to study hemp in Minnesota,” said George Weiblen, a plant biology professor at the University of Minnesota. “At the present time, it is not possible for farmers to grow hemp in Minnesota as a commercial crop.”

The legislative proposal is in accordance with the federal Farm Bill that was signed into law last year and makes it easier for
researchers at higher education institutions or state agriculture departments to grow the crop.

Weiblen has researched the genetic differences between marijuana and hemp since 2002, which he is allowed to do because he’s registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He said hemp has a variety of uses, including dietary supplements, building materials, paper, clothing and cosmetics.

“There’s a lot of untapped potential in industrial hemp,” said Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, an author of the legislative proposal. “It’s such a versatile crop that, I think, there are uses for which we haven’t even identified yet.”

Last session, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored a similar bill that didn’t receive much support. This session, the legislation is gaining more traction.

Both legislators in the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate passed the proposal through their respective agriculture committees last month. The Senate’s version of the bill will be heard at its third committee meeting Friday.

The House’s bill has 14 co-authors from both the Republican and Democratic Farmer Labor party, compared to only six DFLers and no Republicans in 2014.

“We’re very optimistic that this will pass,” Kahn said.

From her experience, she said, similar proposals that pass through the agricultural committees oftentimes get blocked later in the legislative process, like when they’re heard in criminal justice or judiciary committees.

In its first committee hearing, the Senate’s bill passed without any objections, Eken said, but in its second hearing, some law enforcement officials raised concerns.

Eken said some law enforcement officials said they worry that hemp farmers could hide marijuana plants among the crop.

But Eken said if people tried doing that, cross-pollination would ruin both plant varieties.

The bill requires farmers to provide their plots’ locations, which Kahn said is a safeguard.

“There are very few people who are doing illegal things who want to point out exactly where the geophysical coordinates of where they’re doing it is,” Kahn said.

The bill defines industrial hemp as any part of the plant Cannabis sativa that contains no more than 0.3 percent THC. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive substance found in cannabis plant varieties. Marijuana usually contains anywhere from 1 percent to about 20 percent THC.

Weiblen said he’ll continue to study hemp as long as there’s a need and there remains to be unanswered questions.

“We’d like to study naturalized Minnesota hemp … that [has] adapted to the conditions of our state since the plant was introduced here 150 years ago,” he said.