BISMARCK - When Congress wrote laws 70 years ago regulating marijuana, it purposely made sure it was not outlawing the possession, production and processing of industrial hemp, say two North Dakota farmers who want to grow it.

David Monson of Osnabrock and Wayne Hauge of Ray have the state licenses they need to become the first legal U.S. growers of the benign fiber-and-oil seed crop in more than 50 years.

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They have a new state law saying they don't need federal permission.

But as far as the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is concerned, industrial hemp and marijuana are one and the same. Monson and Hauge fear they'd be arrested for manufacturing a controlled substance, should they actually take steps to cultivate hemp.

The DEA's deputy assistant administrator told North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson in a March 27 letter that as far as it was concerned, Monson and Hauge were simply trying "to grow marijuana - the most widely abused controlled substance in the United States."

Standing firm

The DEA has been firm for the better part of 10 years that it won't accommodate even the experimental growing of hemp by agricultural scientists in the state, Monson and Johnson said.

"It's pretty obvious their position isn't going to change," Monson said. So, on Monday, the two farmers, backed by a national group that is paying their legal bills, sued the DEA and the Department of Justice, seeking a federal judge's declaration that growing hemp in North Dakota would not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act, to "see if we can get them off the dime," Monson said.

It's legal and common in the U.S. to import and process industrial hemp and its products from other countries where it is grown legally, but it can't be grown. During World War II and into the 1950s, industrial hemp crops were encouraged for making rope, canvas and other items.

Grown elsewhere

The lawsuit says hemp is grown in more than 30 countries, including Canada. Most of its 48,000 acres are in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Monson has tried legalizing hemp cultivation in North Dakota the past decade in his position as a state legislator from District 10 in the state's most northeastern section. He is a part-time farmer of 700 acres but earns his living as a school administrator.

He said Monday he started the work because farmers in the northeast corner of the state have been plagued by fusarium head blight, also known as scab, a fungus disease that has destroyed the grain crops over and over. They need a nongrain crop to rotate into their fields to break the cycle of scab, he said. Manitoba farmers not far from his farm are earning profits of $250 per acre, he said.

Last winter, Monson and Hauge applied for state Agriculture Department hemp growing licenses and got them. Then they both applied for DEA registrations, applications Johnson personally delivered to the DEA at a meeting in Washington. The agency dismissed their plans. So legislators, before they left town in late April, removed from law the need to have federal OK.

The men's attorney, Tim Purdon of Bismarck, said he wants a federal judge's declaration that the DEA can do nothing if the North Dakota farmers plant hemp, which he wryly noted is what the agency has been doing for 10 years in response to all the state requests to allow the cultivation. The national group Vote Hemp is paying Purdon's fees. Its officials said in a telephone news conference Monday that it began raising money for this lawsuit a year ago.

Cole works for Forum Communication Co., which also owns the Herald.