Michael Erickson’s newest cash crop was a real traffic stopper.

As the little green plants sprouted in his fields outside East Grand Forks and began to unfurl their jagged narrow leaves, Erickson started to notice more cars cruising along his road, slowing for a good long look at the waving fields of hemp — a cannabis strain that hadn’t been harvested commercially in Minnesota since the 1950s.

“Some people would get out of the car and run down into the field,” said Erickson, who harvested 140 acres of hemp last year on his land. I don’t think there was anything shady, or they were taking plants. It was just to look.”

Because last week was full of stress and grief, it sometimes helps to focus on green growing things and clever entrepreneurs who can turn weeds into ropes and oils and potions and lotions and bags of overpriced hemp seeds at Whole Foods.

Minnesota’s industrial hemp pilot program is flourishing as it heads into its third growing season. More and more farmers like Erickson are working the cannabis strain into rotation beside their soybeans and sugar beets.

The program, run through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, attracted 30 licensed hemp growers and five licensed processors this year, with 1,323 acres set aside for hemp cultivation across the state — compared to the 38 acres of hemp farmed in the program’s first year.

“I think the potential for this crop is very good,” said Erickson, who will be selling his first crop of hemp grain to a processor in the Twin Cities this month. “There’s profit to be made.”

There’s a steep learning curve when you’re resuscitating an industry that’s been dormant in this state for six decades. And you don’t need to notify the sheriff or pass a federal background check to grow sugar beets the way you do when you plant a crop that the federal government still considers an illicit substance.

Hemp and marijuana look alike and are caught alike in a tug-of-war between federal and state laws. There the similarities end.

The hemp may be as high as an elephant’s eye. The same can’t be said for the consumer.

Industrial hemp contains so little of the psychoactive chemical THC that you might as well try smoking a rolled-up Sunday edition of your daily newspaper.

“You’d have to smoke a whole field” of hemp, said Assistant Commissioner Andrea Vaubel, who oversees the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s hemp pilot program. Even if you tried — which the Department of Agriculture does not recommend — “all you’d get is a headache.”

There’s a market for almost every part of the hemp plant. You can make it into clothes, food, building materials, medicine like CBD oil and even birdseed, she said. Right now, many of the hemp products in Minnesota are imported from places like Canada, and that is something the Department of Agriculture would very much like to change.

But this is America, and America has a weird relationship with drugs and things shaped like drugs.

Cannabis — hemp included — is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, on a list with drugs like heroin or LSD that have no federally recognized medical value. Before the Minnesota Department of Agriculture could launch its industrial hemp program, it had to register itself as an importer of dangerous drugs. Only then could it bring in hemp seeds for cultivation.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Health Department’s Office of Medical Cannabis, which oversees the kind of cannabis that actually can get you high, has zero federal paperwork. Because even though 31 states have legalized medical marijuana, the federal government still insists that medical marijuana is not a thing.

The hurdles to hemp could change if Congress passes the Senate’s version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which includes language that would legalize industrial hemp. Not only would the Minnesota Department of Agriculture get out of the drug trade, hemp farmers would be eligible for crop subsidies.

“Soybeans, many years ago, [were] never heard of and now it’s a huge crop for Minnesota and the entire world,” Vaubel said. “We love Canadians, but we want to be making that stuff here. We know we can grow it in Minnesota.”

 

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