In April, North Dakota became the first state since 1937 to legalize and set production guidelines for growing industrial hemp, despite a longstanding ban on the crop by the Drug Enforcement Agency. According to the DEA, hemp is marijuana and thus illegal, regardless of the fact that hemp contains less than 1% of the psychoactive ingredient, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). By comparison, marijuana usually contains 5% to 20% of THC.
But under pressure from farmers eager for alternative crops, the DEA ban is showing signs of collapse—and not just in North Dakota. Twelve states have passed or are considering pro-hemp legislation. Minnesota, Illinois and Hawaii will grow hemp experimentally, while New Mexico is researching hemp farming. Hemp legislation is pending in Tennessee, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and Maryland, while Montana and Virginia have requested an end to the federal ban. On the West Coast, the California Democratic Party has added legalization of industrial hemp to its platform.
Meanwhile, organizations like the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association and the North American Industrial Hemp Council are pressuring the DEA with a law suit filed after actor Woody Harrelson was arrested in 1996 for planting hemp seeds. The Kentucky Supreme Court is reviewing the suit.
"Sending this kind of message to the federal government will get them to address the issue," says Rep. David Monson, a sponsor of the North Dakota bill. "Their problems and fears [about hemp] are unfounded."
Hemp can be made into food, soap, ink, textiles, paper and fuel. It can grow almost anywhere and requires little water or pesticides to flourish, while naturally controlling surrounding weeds. Hemp is produced in 33 countries, including Canada, and while U.S. manufacturers import it, many say growing it domestically could help boost the economy and farmers' incomes. "Farmers are going broke," Monson says. "We need hemp to stop this cycle.''