Wild marijuana is growing along railroad tracks and roadsides, in abandoned lots and open fields, along fences and beneath stop signs.

It's not primo stuff, authorities say, but it's more potent than the stuff once referred to as "ditch weed" decades ago. And it grows right here in the metro area.

"It's all over the place," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

"This is hemp, the stuff farmers grew a century ago, and not the hydroponically grown, super-potent stuff that you find coming from Canada," Stanek said. "There's a reason they call it weed."

Hemp, which is classified as one of 11 prohibited noxious weeds in Minnesota, has long been a nuisance to farmers whose plowing equipment jams when grinding through strains of the dust-spewing weed. The five forms of thistle on the prohibited list cause similar problems, "but nobody smokes thistle," said Dennis Berg, a longtime farmer and chairman of the Anoka County Board.

Still, wild-marijuana cases aren't expected to jam local court calendars the way hemp jams tilling equipment. "It's one of the most important weeds on our noxious-weeds list, but somehow it falls under the radar," said Tony Cortilet, coordinator of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's noxious and invasive weed unit. "People either don't recognize it like they do other weeds, or they're growing it for other reasons, and hope it's ignored."

The street value of wild marijuana is minimal compared with that of, say, B.C. Bud, the highly potent and high-priced marijuana that is believed to originate in British Columbia. "But it's something that gets kids into mischief, or worse," said Lynn Hagen, master gardener with the University of Minnesota Agriculture Extension Service in Anoka County.

Cases in Anoka County

It's not just high school kids who are getting into mischief. Hennepin County made at least three arrests in wild-marijuana cases last year, Stanek said. And Anoka County prosecutor Jessica Rugani says she has three pending cases -- an unusually high number for weed that "you'd have to smoke a lot of to get high," she says.

One case involves a 20-year-old Wyoming, Minn., man whose 1996 Dodge Intrepid was found last August in a field within the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. According to court documents, an Anoka County deputy noticed two marijuana joints inside the driver's-side door handle. Searching further, the deputy found 1.7 kilograms of marijuana and a pair of scissors, which the man admitted he used to cut down marijuana plants, the documents said.

Just two weeks before, the same man was found in his car behind an abandoned house in Ham Lake. An Anoka County sheriff's deputy, on a routine patrol, smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle -- and then discovered 631 grams of marijuana stowed in baggies and wrapped in several layers of tape, about the size of a football, according to court documents.

The maximum penalty in cases involving fifth-degree charges for small amounts of marijuana is five years and a $10,000 fine. But someone with no criminal history is more likely to receive a sentence of 45 days in jail with a year stayed, Rugani said.

'Very good stuff'

Stanek says authorities aren't looking to bust "Joe Farmer," who is struggling to keep marijuana from reseeding in fields that are designated for crops. But when authorities find three or four plots of cultivated wild marijuana in a field, "that's the very good stuff" and not marijuana that's been growing here for 100 years or more, Stanek said.

Hemp, which originated in Asia, has been grown for 12,000 years. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and Ben Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Henry Ford tried using hemp material to build car bodies.

Much of the wild marijuana growing in the metro area was planted around the start of the 20th century and has reseeded annually, Hagen said. Hemp was grown commercially during World War II by local farmers who signed contracts to supply the government with it to make rope.

But farmers like Anoka County's Berg have complained about hemp for decades. It often grows in soybean fields and has to be chopped first by farmers who don't want it to jam machinery, Cortilet said.

Minnesota law defines noxious weeds "to be injurious to public health, public roads, environment, crops, livestock and other property." Minnesota's prohibited noxious weeds include field bindweed, garlic mustard, poison ivy, purple loosestrife, leafy spurge, perennial sowthistle, bull thistle, Canada thistle, musk thistle, plumeless thistle and hemp. Both hemp and marijuana have the ingredient THC, but the percentage in hemp is minimal, too little to get a person high.

"I was out walking in Ramsey and noticed marijuana growing near a stop sign," said Anoka County Attorney Robert M.A. Johnson. "You pull it up, say, 'Oh, my goodness. What's that doing here?' "

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419