Dave Monson is not a druggie. He’s a mild-mannered farmer with three grown boys and a seat in the North Dakota Legislative Assembly. But in June, Monson and another farmer took the nation’s top drug authority to court with the hope of winning the right to grow cannabis.
Monson intends to produce industrial hemp, not marijuana. The hardy crop requires few chemicals, and the stalks and seeds can be made into everything from paper to health food to biofuels. Other countries like Canada allow farmers to grow hemp. But because marijuana and hemp share the same name, Cannabis sativa, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) lumps them both into the same category — illegal.
“The DEA has been stonewalling for 10 years,” says Monson. “We finally got to the point that we had to do something. This [lawsuit] is about the last resort.”
The fight to legalize hemp has been steadily gaining momentum. Fifteen states have passed pro-hemp regulations in the past decade and in 2004, a federal court lifted the DEA ban on importing and selling hemp.
Hemp has been selectively bred over thousands of years for fiber and oil production. Current varieties contain less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, the compound that gives marijuana its mystical properties.
“Industrial hemp and marijuana are not the same thing,” says Roger Johnson, North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner. “Every other industrialized country in the world differentiates between the two. What the DEA is doing is silly, illogical, and wasteful of taxpayer’s money.”
Monson, who has been farming the same land for 22 years, developed an interest in hemp in the late-1990s. Heavy rains had caused an outbreak of scab, a fungus that destroys small grains like wheat and barley, two of Monson’s staple crops. So, he began looking for hardier and more sustainable alternatives.
“I had friends in Canada raising hemp and they were making $200 profit per acre. That’s what we usually gross off of a crop,” Monson says. “You could make a nice living off that on a small farm.”
Economics is the driving force behind North Dakota’s interest in hemp as well. Advocates say growing industrial hemp has the potential to make farming more profitable. As environmental awareness grows, so does the demand for the fast-growing renewable fiber. Although the market is still young, Johnson sees huge potential.
“There are literally thousands of products that are made from industrial hemp all over the world,” Johnson says.
This year, North Dakota became the first state in 50 years to allow commercial production of industrial hemp. Hundreds of farmers showed interest in growing the crop. But Johnson, who suspected that gaining federal approval would be an uphill battle, dissuaded all but two from even applying for a state license.
Monson and another farmer, Wayne Hauge, decided to push forward. They received state licenses in January and applied for federal approval the following month. But by late May, the short window for planting had passed with no answer from the DEA.
“That’s pretty much in keeping with how they have reacted for the past 10 years,” says Johnson. “Their general posture has been to ignore everything and everyone.”
So Monson and Hauge took the DEA to court. North Dakota dropped its rule that farmers must obtain federal approval before planting industrial hemp, but those who do so may still face federal charges. Monson and Hauge’s lawsuit seeks the DEA’s assurance that the government will not prosecute farmers for growing the crop.
Federal legislation is in the works as well. Texas Republican Ron Paul, the self-proclaimed “leading advocate for freedom,” introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act in the House of Representatives in 2005 and again this February. The bill aims to exempt hemp from the controlled substance rules that apply to marijuana. In April, it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. But with just one hemp lobbyist and no strong industry backing, the legislation may not make it out of subcommittee.
In the meantime, the DEA intends to uphold existing laws. When asked what would happen to a farmer who decides to plant hemp, DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite responded, “DEA never speculates about enforcement. We don’t tip our hand to those that break the law.”
Story by Cassandra Willyard. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.