Hemp legislation receives endorsement from Midwest officials

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(Host) Officials from North Dakota urged Vermont lawmakers on Friday to pass legislation legalizing the production of industrial hemp.

North Dakota first authorized farmers to grow hemp eight years ago. But the officials said the federal government has stalled efforts to license farmers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) David Monson has served 16 years in the North Dakota statehouse. He’s a farmer, a Republican, and assistant majority leader. He says his only interest in hemp is as a cash crop for farmers.

(Monson) I did not inhale (laughter) I will tell you that.

(Dillon) Hemp is the same species as marijuana. But Monson says the tall plants — which are grown for fiber and seed oil — have no value as a drug. The strain grown for industrial purposes is very low in psychoactive compounds.

And for a wheat farmer like Monson, hemp offers a valuable alternative.

North Dakota first legalized industrial hemp production in 1999. Farmers must go through a criminal background check and buy their seed through licensed sources.

But the state has had a hard time getting approval for farmers from the U-S Drug Enforcement Agency.

(Monson) This is not a political issue. It’s not a partisan issue. I feel and view this as a states’ rights issue more than anything.

(Dillon) Indeed, in North Dakota industrial hemp enjoys bi-artisan support. Democrat Roger Johnson is the elected agriculture commissioner. He testified by phone before the House Agriculture Committee.

(Johnson) Most of what we have done in North Dakota has been directed as simply saying you know industrial hemp is a crop and we ought to allow it to be grown just like any other crop. It’s very simple, very straightforward, very common sense.

(Dillon) Commissioner Johnson says he’s frustrated with the DEA. He says the agency has delayed federal approval. And he says the agency does not acknowledge any difference between marijuana and industrial hemp.

(Johnson) DEA’s refusal to respond on a timely basis. DEA’s refusal to distinguish between these two crops is, in fact, a de-facto denial of the registration application that we have submitted.

(Dillon) Monson, the North Dakota farmer and state representative, urged Vermont lawmakers to consider the bill. He said that could put pressure on the DEA.

(Monson) I’m very frustrated that other states haven’t picked up on this and helped us because I’m thinking the more states that can pass this stuff the more attention DEA is going to get on this issue and the more they’re going to say, we better address this.

(Dillon) Monson’s visit to Vermont was arranged by the Rural Vermont farm advocacy organization. The group sees industrial hemp as a way to help farmers remain viable in Vermont.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Zuckerman says the bill will probably not advance this year, but will be a priority for his committee in the second half of the legislative biennium.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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