North Dakota's government continues to show support for the federal legalization of industrial hemp with the passing of House Bill 1492.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, allows North Dakota State University to store "feral hemp seeds" in preparation for the day it becomes legal to grow industrial hemp in the United States.
Monson has been fighting with the federal government since 1997 to make industrial hemp legal to grow in NDSU research plots. In 1999, North Dakota became the first state to pass hemp farming legislation, but to date the state has not challenged federal supremacy over the issue in the courts.
HB 1492 passed 87-3 in the House and 46-0 in the Senate. Gov. John Hoeven signed the bill into law March 9.
Don Wirtschafter, an attorney who operates The Ohio Hempery Inc. store in Guysville, Ohio, said North Dakota's legislation is certainly a step in the right direction.
"This is the last stranglehold with this issue," Wirtschafter said. "Otherwise farmers would have to import seeds, but there's nothing against indigenous seeds."
Feral hemp is that which naturally grows in North Dakota. It was Monson's plan to begin a breeding program at NDSU as soon as possible to strengthen the species when it becomes legal in the United States by federal law.
"This is one more step to making the farmer ready," Wirtschafter said. "Apparently, in-state law wouldn't violate federal law, but it remains to be seen if there will be litigation on whether or not the university can start its breeding program."
Because the seed and plant looks like marijuana, it has been illegal by federal statutes for nearly 50 years.
Rep. Andy Maragos, D-Minot, said the federal status prohibits North Dakota's farmers from competing against foreign product markets, including those in large, nearby Canadian population centers in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
"I believe it would be a great cash crop for our farmers if that is what they choose to produce," Maragos said. "I hope this legislation improves that environment."
Shaun Crew is one person who has profited from legal industrial hemp. Crew, the president of Hemp Oil Canada in St. Agathe, Man., said industrial hemp has been legal in Canada in some capacity since 1996 and Manitoba's farmers have done well with domestic and foreign markets.
"It's a non-issue in Canada," Crew said about hemp's comparison to marijuana. "I understand it's legal in North Dakota, but it should be a non-issue."
Ironically, Crew, who processes organic hemp products and sells organic hemp seeds, carries a "USDA Organic" stamp on Hemp Oil Canada labels. Because he is allowed to sell manufactured goods made from hemp and sterilized hemp seed in the United States, he is allowed, as a Canadian, to use the "USDA Organic" label for sales in the United States.
Crew said farmers in Manitoba who grow industrial hemp are subject to searches by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in case there is marijuana hiding among the hemp crop. If the proper paperwork is in place, it's usually just a matter of checking that paperwork.
Crew added that naive teenagers found out quickly that industrial hemp and marijuana are two different plants. Hemp, which looks the same as marijuana, lacks the psychoactive ingredient THC.
"The first couple of years there were carloads of kids coming out and stealing leaves," Crew said. "But the novelty quickly wore off."
Likewise, it took a while for Hemp Oil Canada to become established. In nine years, however, it has risen to one of the largest hemp outlets in Canada and is situated less than 20 miles south of Winnipeg.
"The first four years were tough," Crew said. "After that, we developed marketing opportunities and it's all turned out well."
Crew suggested North Dakota's decision to pass HB 1492 is probably the right one, but as long as hemp remains illegal in the United States, that can only be good for Manitoba farmers.
"This decision in the states, that's helped us and now, there's no turning back," Crew said.