Minnesota’s dope idea: U could

by John Adams

Legislators sat around a table late into the evening passing around a bag of hemp — hemp chips, that is.
Legislators in the House Agriculture Committee were debating the merits of a bill that would allow the University to conduct research on industrial hemp. Made from the same plant as marijuana — cannabis sativa l. — the product is thus illegal to grow.
The bill is intended to give struggling Minnesota farmers another possible crop. It was introduced by Sen. Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, whose district includes the farm-laden Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents most of the Minneapolis campus.
But opponents of the bill say there is only a small market for industrial hemp and that growing it will make keeping marijuana illegal more difficult.
The bill would legalize the planting of industrial hemp crops for research purposes. With a pro-industrial hemp governor and a struggling farm economy, Minnesota has a good chance of passing the bill; it recently passed in the Senate by a vote of 54-4 and is in committee in the House. If the bill passes, the University’s $150,000 research would still need the permission of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which categorizes industrial hemp as a drug — but that stance might be changing.
DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine stated in a recent letter to a legislator in Hawaii, which is one of 10 other states also attempting to grow industrial hemp, that the enforcement agency is “actively reviewing the petition (to remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act) and has made substantial progress toward completion.” In a previous letter he stated, “With respect to hemp, due to the recent commercial interest in its cultivation, the DEA is reviewing the security regulations pertaining to the cultivation of cannabis sativa l. for industrial purposes, to include hemp.”
Hemp advocates claim there are more than 20,000 products that can be produced from industrial hemp and that it is better for the environment than similar products in the market it could replace, such as wood and cotton. Because industrial hemp uses fewer pesticides than cotton and produces more pulp for making paper than a similar-sized stand of trees, proponents say it has many ecological and marketable benefits.
Industrial hemp products range from those made with the bast fibers in the stalk of the plant such as jeans, socks and paper to hemp seeds that produce food products, personal hygiene products and industrial goods such as paint.
“The introduction of hemp to West Central Minnesota would add much-needed diversity into the current crop rotation and help minimize weed and insect pressures,” said Gary Lemme, who, as head of the West Central Experiment Station at the University of Minnesota-Morris, would conduct the field research for industrial hemp if permitted by the Legislature and the DEA.
Lemme added that no herbicides or insecticides will be needed in the crop research.
West Central Minnesota includes the Red River Valley, where crop land has taken the brunt of bad weather in addition to low crop prices in Minnesota.
After the research is conducted in the field, the crop would be taken to the Department of Wood and Paper Science on the St. Paul campus where it would be tested as an alternative to wood pulp for producing paper.
If the DEA does categorize industrial hemp as a crop, farmers would likely be required to register the crop with the state and have it monitored by law enforcement officials, which would be fine with farmer Stephanie Henriksen.
“We need alternatives to our crops; corn is not bringing in enough money,” said Henriksen, who farms about two hours south of the Twin Cities. Henriksen said her corn and soybean crop prices are low this year and that the whole region is struggling from low prices for farm commodities.
Jeanette McDougal does not want to see industrial hemp and marijuana in different DEA categories. McDougal is co-chairwoman of the Minnesota chapter of Drug Watch International, an organization which promotes a drug-free culture.
McDougal calls hemp, “hemp-marijuana” and cited numerous articles in “High Times,” a magazine that supports the legalization of hemp. She said the articles represent the drug culture’s attempt to legalize hemp as a step in the legalization of marijuana.
Minnesota had a more restrictive industrial hemp bill in 1998 that passed through the House and Senate but was vetoed by former Gov. Arne Carlson. The outgoing governor sided with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which argued the bill would be difficult to enforce. But Gov. Jesse Ventura supports industrial hemp research. Ventura campaigned in favor of industrial hemp and said he would sign a bill allowing it.
Sam Baxter, co-owner of Sativa’s Closet in the Mall of America, brought the hemp chips to the House Agriculture Committee meeting. Sativa is the species name for the plant that produces marijuana as well as the industrial hemp goods in his store.
Baxter said most of his customers are 35-to 50-year-olds who spend about $150 to $200 per visit. “I even paid $90 for this hemp shirt to look good in front of you today,” said Baxter, who also wore industrial hemp jeans. Baxter estimated the prices for industrial hemp goods could come down about 25 percent after a few years of production in the United States.
Most of the goods in the store are manufactured in the United States with imported industrial hemp fabric. Baxter said there is an American market for industrial hemp and that his business is growing, but he said education is the key. “We’ve had 50 years of negative education about hemp. Now we need to turn it around,” he said, referring to the public’s misconception that industrial hemp and marijuana are the same thing.
Law enforcement of marijuana plants could be difficult because the industrial hemp plant and the marijuana plant are almost indistinguishable without the aid of a chemical test. A marijuana plant has a THC level, the psychoactive component of the plant, of between 3 percent and 15 percent. An industrial hemp plant contains less than 0.3 percent THC.
However, the two plants can often only be distinguished by the way the seeds are distributed. Marijuana plants are grown more close together than hemp plants. Opponents argue growers might hide marijuana plants in an industrial hemp field, but proponents say mixing the two in the same field would cause cross-fertilization and make both crops worthless.
The Department of Public Safety “may support a test plot of industrial hemp but that the key is to make the (hemp) plant distinguishable from marijuana,” said Charlie Weaver, head of the department, which oversees the state’s law enforcement. “Law enforcement continues to have concerns about the bill.”
Robert G. Robinson, a retired University professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, grew industrial hemp for research in the 1960s. “Prior to 1938, hemp production was legal and declining,” he said. “If it is such a good idea, why did people stop planting it when they could plant it? It certainly was not the law that stopped marijuana from being produced for pulp.”
United States imports of industrial hemp woven fabrics have increased dramatically over the past five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, but totaled only $2.9 million in 1997. Proponents of industrial hemp say that import volume increases from between $30 million to $40 million when products such as hemp paper, hemp shampoo and hemp oil are included.