It looks like pot, it grows like pot. If you get caught with it, you will be prosecuted.

But the "weed" that's sometimes found in Coon Rapids and other parts of Anoka County won't make you high and it could make you sick.

Last week, Coon Rapids public works employees reported a patch of 12-foot-tall cannabis plants growing in an undisclosed location.

Police Chief Brad Wise said such a call comes in at least once a year, from city workers or "Joe Citizen, hiking." Wise worries that someone might see it and think they've come upon marijuana, when it's actually hemp, a relative of the plant.

"To a young person who has basic knowledge of marijuana, from a T-shirt or something, their reaction might be, 'Omigod, this illegal drug is growing in front of me,'" Wise said. "You'd hate to think a youngster could be tempted to a criminal act, to cut the plant, dry it and try to smoke it."

The results would be disappointing, to say the least.

"It looks like marijuana in every way, including the buds and the leaves, but it has almost zero THC, the drug that provides the effect that some people look for," Wise said. "Ultimately, they would end up with a really bad headache and no high that they may have been looking for."

Industrial-quality hemp was grown throughout central Minnesota in the 1940s, said Bob Quist, site manager for the Oliver Kelley Farm, a living-history agricultural museum in Elk River.

"It was for the rope industry," he said. "It really flourished in the later part of the 1930s and 1940s because they used a lot of rope on warships."

It is now illegal to grow hemp in Minnesota. Legislation to allow a regulated hemp industry has been offered in recent years at the State Capitol, but hasn't moved past the committee stage.

Dormant, then back

Hemp seeds can lie dormant in the soil for 20 years, and when conditions are right, the plants will pop up. Quist said he knew of a community garden in Ramsey that had "a nice crop."

"Most people didn't know what that plant was," he said.

The danger is when people think they know what it is, Wise said. He sends out his drug specialists, and they can tell right away by how the plants come up whether they've been cultivated by people or by Mother Nature, he said. Occasionally, they'll come across a patch that's obviously been harvested.

That's trouble, he said. Although the plant has no psychotropic qualities, the law doesn't make a distinction for how much THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is in the plant.

"It would be really foolish for anyone to cut it up, dry it up, put it in a bag and possess it or portray it in any way as marijuana, because they would get arrested."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409