Two North Dakota farmers Monday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Bismarck seeking to overturn the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ban on growing industrial hemp in the United States. The lawsuit seeks a court order barring the DEA from charging the farmers with a criminal violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
hemp being harvested (courtesy Wikipedia)
Hemp products are legal in the US, but the DEA ban prevents US farmers from growing it, meaning domestic hemp product makers must turn to suppliers in countries where it is legal to grow, including Canada, China, and most of Europe.
Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, but unlike the marijuana consumed by recreational and medical marijuana users, contains only tiny amounts of the psychoactive substance that gets marijuana users "high." But the DEA argues that hemp is marijuana and that the CSA gives it authority to ban it.
The farmers and their attorneys disagree, pointing out that the CSA contains language explicitly exempting hemp fiber, seed oil, and seed incapable of germination from the definition of "marihuana" and are thus not controlled substances under that law. That same language was used to allow the legal import of hemp into the US as a result of a 2004 federal court decision siding with the hemp industry against the DEA.
But while the language of the CSA appears clear, ambiguities remain, said Adam Eidinger, a spokesman for the hemp industry lobby group Vote Hemp. "There is a contradiction in the law when it comes to growing the plant, because you can't grow the plant without producing seeds and flowers, and the DEA claims the act gives it authority over those parts of the plant," he told Drug War Chronicle. "In this case, we have to look at Congress's intent in passing the law, and we think it is clear that Congress intended that hemp be excluded," he said.
WWII-era federal film encouraging hemp growing for war effort
Monday's lawsuit is only the latest move in a decade-old struggle by North Dakota farmers to grow hemp. The state first passed hemp legislation in 1997, but things really began moving when state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, a strong hemp supporter, issued the first state permits to grow hemp to farmers Wayne Hauge and Dave Monson (who is also a Republican state legislator) on February 6. One week later, Hauge and Monson sent a request to the DEA requesting licenses to grow their crops and noting that they needed a response by early April in order to get the crops in the ground this year.
The DEA failed to respond in a timely fashion. According to a March 27 DEA letter to Ag Commissioner Johnson, seven weeks was not enough time for the agency to arrive at a ruling on the request. That letter was the final straw for the North Dakotans.
"We are asking the DEA to do nothing, which is exactly what they have done for ten years," said Tim Purdon, one of the attorneys working for Monson and Hauge, at a Monday press conference announcing the lawsuit. "North Dakota's rules no longer require a DEA license, so we are basically asking the court to tell the DEA to leave our farmers alone."
"I applied for my North Dakota state license in January and was hopeful that the DEA would act quickly and affirm my right to plant industrial hemp this year. Unfortunately, the DEA has not responded in any way other than to state that it would take them a lot more time than the window of time I have to import seed and plant the crop," said Rep. Monson. "It appears that the DEA really doesn't want to work with anyone to resolve the issue," Monson added.
"I met with the DEA in February and presented copies of the licenses along with the applications from Hauge and Monson and the checks for the application fee and asked them to please review those applications as soon as possible," said Commissioner Johnson, who noted he had also met with the agency the previous year in an effort to smooth the way. "The DEA did not respond. It was a de facto denial of the applications, which led us to the point of filing this lawsuit," he said. "My strong opinion is that the DEA needs to get off this kick of viewing industrial hemp and marijuana as identical. They need to exercise their discretion to view them differently, like every other industrial country does."
In addition to its obstinate refusal to differentiate between hemp and marijuana, the DEA has also expressed concerns that lawmen would be unable to tell the difference between the two and that people would hide marijuana plants in the middle of hemp fields. That's all bunk, said California cannabis and hemp cultivation expert Chris Conrad.
"First off, this is not a problem for Canadian, British, German, French, and Spanish police, so why are American cops so incompetent compared to the rest of the world, and why should we coddle them for that rather than demand they do their jobs?" he asked. "Also, the fields are registered and police will have the power to enter and inspect at will, so it would be stupid to tell the cops where you're growing, then try to hide marijuana in the field," Conrad pointed out.
The two crops are grown differently for different ends, Conrad noted. "Marijuana is grown for flowering branches, whereas hemp is grown for either stalk or seeds. The stalk crop can be harvested before it flowers, so there would never, ever be any marijuana buds produced." Also, Conrad pointed out, hemp grows straight up and the plants are spaced only a few inches apart, while marijuana plants are shorter and bushier. "Marijuana plants look very different from hemp plants and would be conspicuous from the other plants, especially in an aerial flyover where you would see the area around the marijuana being cleared out from the hemp plants. It's very easy to identify a marijuana patch in a hemp field, and if there is a marijuana plant, it hempifies [is pollinated by the hemp plants] and goes away."
The science and agriculture of hemp probably have little to do with the DEA's intransigent insistence that hemp is marijuana, said Vote Hemp's Eidinger. "This is part of the culture war," he suggested. "When Jack Herer published "The Emperor Has No Clothes" in the early 1980s, the DEA began seeing the call for industrial hemp as part of weakening the links of the criminalization of marijuana." Publication of Herer's book led to a revitalization of interest in industrial hemp, but also associated hemp with the marijuana culture, rather than staid farmers like Hauge and Monson.
Regardless of the past, the state of North Dakota and its farmers are now tired of being collateral damage in the war on drugs, and now they have initiated the legal action that could resolve the issue once and for all.