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The Seeds of Change

Montana’s rolling back the ban on hemp. But will Washington let us?

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In Montana, people have gotten used to ranking near the bottom of most economic indicators. But the Montana Legislature recently put the state among national leaders in cultivation of an unlikely product: Cannabis sativa.

That’s marijuana, given enough of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. But it’s also industrial hemp, a low-THC variety of Cannabis that has been grown for an astonishing variety of uses for thousands of years.

In this country, growing hemp has not been legal since World War II, when the government actively encouraged hemp production to meet wartime needs for hemp ropes and sails (“Cannabis” and “canvas” come from the same root word).

Montana’s new law, passed by heavy majorities in both houses and signed by Gov. Judy Martz on April 23, won’t override federal law. But it puts Montana at the forefront of national efforts to encourage the federal government to allow farmers to grow hemp.

Under the bill, the state Department of Agriculture is required to send a copy of the law to Montana’s congressional delegation and to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, along with a request for a waiver or a change in federal law that would allow Montana farmers to raise the crop.

The law doesn’t take effect until Oct. 1, but Bill Kissinger, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture, says a staff attorney already is working on the request. The department was neutral on the bill during the session, and Mr. Kissinger says he anticipated that the request would be simple and straightforward.

Even if the federal government grants a waiver, Mr. Kissinger points out, provisions of the bill could be altered. Montana law, for example, defines “industrial hemp” as Cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC, a fraction of the 20 percent or more THC level in quality marijuana. Farmers would have to be licensed to grow it, after putting their fingerprints on file with law enforcement and undergoing a criminal history check. The crop would have to be supervised and tested for THC.

Even if all that happens, nobody expects hemp to replace sugar beets or wheat as a staple Montana crop. State Sen. Chris Christiaens (D-Great Falls) who sponsored the bill, says he expects most farmers will start small, growing just five to 10 acres of hemp. Hemp makes a great cover crop, he adds, growing well in cold, arid climates like Montana’s and has the potential to help the state fill a niche market that now relies on foreign hemp.

He got the idea for a hemp bill while seeking alternative crops for Montana, Christiaens says. Overproduction had cut the price of St. John’s wort from $3,500 an acre to $7, he says, and hemp’s 110-day growing season seemed ideal for Montana.

His bill sailed through the Senate on a 45-5 vote and passed the House 79-21. All but three of the no votes were cast by Republicans, including Yellowstone County senators Royal Johnson, Ken Miller and Corey Stapleton.

Sen. Stapleton (R-Billings) served on the Senate Agriculture Committee that heard the bill and spoke against it on the Senate floor. Maybe the federal ban is archaic and should be overturned, he says, but Montana ought to have its ducks in a row before going up against the DEA, “and we didn’t.”

Stapleton says he was unimpressed by testimony from the bill’s proponents, who were unable to answer even simple questions about the possibility that a drug abuser might distill higher levels of THC from industrial hemp.

“It really reeked of a lack of any sort of academic standards,” Stapleton says. He repeats the message he delivered on the Senate floor: He hopes he’s wrong about hemp, but he isn’t convinced.

Dan Bergey, an assistant professor of plant sciences and plant pathology at Montana State University in Bozeman, testified before that committee and acknowledged at the time that he was uncertain about the possibility of distilling THC from industrial hemp. But he has since concluded that it would be impractical, if not impossible.

For one thing, he says, high levels of cannabidiol in hemp are antagonistic to THC, making hemp sort of an “anti-marijuana” plant. For another, even though it might theoretically be possible to distill THC from hemp in a laboratory, he says, who would bother? It would be illegal and expensive, and varieties of high-THC marijuana already exist.

Dr. Bergey compares the difference between hemp and marijuana to the difference between field corn and sweet corn. Hemp and marijuana are basically the same plant, but they have been bred over generations to have such different characteristics that there’s no mistaking one for the other.

Like Sen. Christiaens, Dr. Bergey sees great advantages to hemp production in Montana. The crop is drought resistant, has deep roots, has no natural predators and is insect resistant. Oil produced from hemp seeds is better than canola oil, he says, and hemp is a more efficient source of paper than trees.

“The market is developing worldwide,” he says. “Why should we deny it to our growers?”

Dr. Bergey sees gradual progress in the fight to win federal approval of hemp production.

“Once you look into it,” he says, “there is no legitimate argument against it.”

Indeed, pro-hemp arguments can take on an almost evangelical fervor. Dozens of websites are devoted to the topic, and they cover a wide range of approaches. Some growers shy away from the topic of marijuana altogether to avoid any association with drug abuse. Other advocates, like the 420 Times e-zine, argue for legalization of both marijuana and hemp and offer “hundreds of pictures of beautiful girls Smoking Weed.”

More serious hemp advocates, such as the North American Industrial Hemp Council Inc., dish out advice on cultivation and seed sources. They detail the amazing number of uses for hemp—you could use it for almost anything except getting high, from clothes to jewelry to foods to automobile door panels. They also point to hemp’s long and honorable history, even in this country, whose founding fathers raised hemp and wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

As late as 1938, Popular Mechanics touted hemp as the source of 50,000 products. But fears of the spread of marijuana use already had begun to taint hemp’s image. Farmers grew hemp under special licenses during the war, but the marijuana scare, along with taxes and the rise of synthetic fabrics, led to the extinction of the domestic hemp industry.

Dozens of foreign countries still raise hemp, including Canada, which authorized commercial production in 1998. In this country, according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, some 27 states, including North Dakota, have passed laws or resolutions calling for hemp research or asking the federal government to reconsider its anti-hemp policy. Even the American Farm Bureau Federation has passed a resolution favoring hemp research.

Perhaps none of those measures has gone as far as Montana’s. The North Dakota law, for example, failed to ask the federal government for a waiver, so it has been ignored, Sen. Christiaens says. A Hawaii law authorized only tiny test plots of hemp.

None of the laws or legislative resolutions (including a 1999 resolution by the Montana House that was authored by Billings Rep. Joan Hurdle) has caused the federal government to budge. Hemp supporters and agricultural interests asked the Clinton administration to reconsider the policy in 1998, but the president who didn’t inhale failed to act. In March, the groups renewed their request to the Bush administration but have received little encouragement. President Bush’s nominee as federal drug czar, John P. Walters, is considered a hard-liner.

Barry McCaffrey, the drug czar under the Clinton administration, remained adamantly opposed to legalizing hemp production during his term. Among other things, he and the DEA argued that hemp would be difficult to distinguish from marijuana plants in surveillance operations and that the pro-hemp movement is a thinly disguised pro-marijuana movement.

Dr. Bergey and other scientists say that the first argument doesn’t hold up. Hemp plants are grown almost like trees; marijuana fields are bushy, and the plants grow several feet apart. Moreover, marijuana growers would be unwise to try to hide their plants in hemp fields, Dr. Bergey says. For one thing, their harvest time is different, so a harvested field of hemp would leave naked marijuana plants growing. For another, the plants cross-pollinate, diminishing THC levels in marijuana.

Even if the federal government does change its attitude, hemp promises no quick fix for Montana agriculture. Saskatchewan hemp grower Arthur Hanks, writing in April for The Hemp Report, warned that even modest Canadian production had overwhelmed the tiny market for hemp.

“Say it to yourself: Hemp is dead,” he wrote. “By that I mean to say, the hemp fad is over. The big boom that seemed waiting for us at legalization in 1998 didn’t happen and today hemp backpacks are now discounted across the land. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if just about any hemp business decided to pack it up and go for greener pastures.”

But he says he remained convinced that hemp has a healthy future, if growers can figure out how. Scott Proctor, a Montana hemp advocate who lobbied informally for passage of the legislation here, is convinced, too.

“The real benefits are the scientific ones,” he says. “Honestly, plastics, diesel fuels, cellophane, and the fact that we could save millions of trees each year make hemp one of the most valuable resources this state could produce. Its application in the field of biomass energy alone could fix one of our problems. Why resort to non-sustainable high cost energy and foreign oil powers when we could be giving that money to our country’s own farmers?”

Unless serious hemp production begins, Dr. Bergey notes, there’s no way to know what the market will be. He and Sen. Christiaens both envision a future where Montanans not only grow hemp but also manufacture hemp products in small businesses and cottage industries. Sen. Christiaens says he has heard from growers around the state who want to give hemp a try.

It would be, they might argue, in keeping with an old American tradition.

Ken Picard and George Ochenski are both on vacation this week. “City Beat” and “Ochenski” will return next week.

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