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N.D. farmers want to raise hemp, challenging drug policy

OSNABROCK, N.D. David C. Monson seems an improbable soul to find at the leading edge of a national movement to legalize growing hemp, a plant that shares a species name, a genus type and, in many circles, a reputation, with marijuana.

OSNABROCK, N.D. David C. Monson seems an improbable soul to find at the leading edge of a national movement to legalize growing hemp, a plant that shares a species name, a genus type and, in many circles, a reputation, with marijuana.

When Monson is not farming, he is high school principal in nearby Edinburg, N.D., population 252. When he is not teaching, he is a Republican representative in Bismarck, the state capital, where his party dominates both houses of the legislature and holds the governorship.

"Look at me do I look shady?" Monson, 56, asked, as he stood in work boots and a ball cap in the rocky black dirt. "This is not any subversive thing like trying to legalize marijuana or whatever. This is just practical agriculture. We're desperate for something that can make us some money."

Federal authorities ban hemp, saying it contains tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive substance better known as THC in marijuana. But six states this year considered legislation to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, introduced a bill in Washington that would let states allow such crops. Hemp (grown in other countries) is already found here in clothes, lotions, snack bars, car door panels, insulation and more.

But no place has challenged the government as fiercely as North Dakota. Monson and another farmer, with the support of the state's agriculture commissioner, applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration for permission to plant hemp immediately.

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The Controlled Substances Act, federal authorities say, is unambiguous. Basically, hemp is considered the same as marijuana.

This battle is decidedly pragmatic. In 1993, scab, a fungus also known as Fusarium head blight, tore through this region, wiping out thousands of acres of wheat, a prized crop in the state, where agriculture remains the largest part of the economy.

But hemp, Monson argued, offered an alternative for North Dakota's crop rotation. Its tall stalks survive similarly cool and wet conditions in Canada, just 25 miles north, where it is legal.

Years and studies and hearings later, few here have much to say against hemp a reflection, it seems, of the state's urgent wish to improve its economy.

Its Legislature has passed a bill allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp and created an official licensing process to fingerprint such farmers and a global positioning system to track their fields. This year, Monson and another North Dakota farmer, with the support of the state's agriculture commissioner, applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration for permission to plant fields of hemp immediately.

"North Dakota is really pushing the envelope on this one," said Doug Farquhar, program director for agriculture and rural development at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislatures in Maine, Montana, West Virginia and other states have passed bills allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, said Alexis Baden-Mayer, the director of government relations for Vote Hemp, a group that presses for legalization, but those laws have not been carried out in view of the federal drug law.

The Controlled Substances Act, federal authorities say, is unambiguous. "Basically hemp is considered the same as marijuana," said Steve Robertson, a special agent for the DEA at its Washington headquarters. "We're an enforcement agency. We're sworn to uphold the law."

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