Minnesota farmers want to grow hemp, but Congress stands in the way

A World War II propaganda video encouraging U.S. farmers to grow hemp to aid in the war effort.

A World War II propaganda video encouraging U.S. farmers to grow hemp to aid in the war effort.

The Chinese used it to make some of the world's earliest paper. The English spun rope and sails out of it for the Royal Navy. Japan uses it to weave loincloths for sumo wrestlers. America's founding fathers made their fortune selling it by the bushels. And in World War II, Americans farmed it religiously to manufacture parachutes and uniforms.   

And none of those guys ever got high in the process. 

Hemp is one of the world's oldest agricultural commodities, grown widely in the U.S. up until the moral panic over drugs in the 1970s. That's when the feds banned it as a Schedule 1 narcotic — a felony to transport over state lines.

Hemp isn't a recreational drug (you'd fry your lungs to a crisp before you'd even get close), but it does contain trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. 

Farmers, including those in Minnesota, have been grumbling about that blanket ban for a long time. After all, hemp's a versatile, environmentally friendly wonder plant that's now used elsewhere for biofuel and biodegradable plastic on top of all the traditional clothes, rope, and animal feed.

But like all acts of Congress, getting anything changed is a long, torturous affair. No one knows when the federal government will let hemp off the hook.

Meanwhile, a farm bill passed in 2014 threw individual states a small bone. States can apply for a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to start growing hemp again, but only for academic research, not commercial sales.

Minnesota took the opportunity to create a hemp pilot program last year. The state Department of Agriculture applied for a DEA permit to start importing hemp seed. It just got the stamp of approval last month. Now it needs to find researchers who want to know more about hemp, and farmers who might like to contract with the state in the name of scientific progress.

The problem is, not that many people seem interested so far, says Geir Friisoe of the Department of Agriculture. There's one researcher at the U who's sorta been studying genetic variations in naturally occurring Minnesota hemp, so he'd probably like a plot or two to play with. Farmers, however, generally prefer to grow plants that they can sell for money to feed their families.

Focusing solely on research, especially on something that humankind has grown for millennia, seems kind of pointless when they'd rather start growing and selling the stuff immediately. 

"We've heard of some limited interest in growing hemp, but as far as participating in a pilot project, there's less interest just because the economics are not there yet," Friisoe says. "Farmers are interested in hemp on a commercial basis."

The Department of Agriculture is in a tough spot because it's already incurred some expenses applying for the DEA permit, and having Friisoe and other members of the Plant Protection Division undergo intensive DEA security screening. If anyone starts growing hemp in Minnesota next year or in coming years, that strain would have to be tested thoroughly to make sure it carries less than 0.3 percent THC. Otherwise, the farmers growing it could get in trouble with the DEA and lose important federal farm subsidies. 

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers have now proposed allotting the hemp pilot program $500,000 annually, starting in 2017. 

The Department of Agriculture has called on farmers statewide to participate in the hemp program. The application window will close April 30. Friisoe says he's only got one interested farmer so far. 

"Basically, hemp is considered a drug. It's silly, but that's the way the law was written," he says. "Until Congress fixes that, it's going to continue to be a problem."