Playing by Federal Rules Undermines Minnesota Efforts to Produce Hemp

Efforts to jump-start industrial hemp farming in Minnesota have failed because the state tied its program to federal regulations instead of ignoring federal prohibition and simply formulating its own policy to encourage hemp farming and thwart the feds’ ban in effect.

Under the “Industrial Hemp Development Act,” passed by the state legislature in June, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture writes rules for hemp production and licensing. Yet, the state won’t allow farmers to actually cultivate industrial hemp for commercial purposes until the federal government allows it, according to the Associated Press.

Early in 2014, President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill into law, which included a provision allowing a handful of states to begin limited research programs growing hemp. With the new law in place, Minnesota can take advantage of research opportunities.

But a lack of funding has even put allowable research cultivation on the back burner. According to a Dept. of Agriculture email there “are no opportunities to be involved with the pilot program at this time.”

One farmer quoted in the AP story summarized the situation appropriately.

"'It kind of stinks,” said Josh Helberg, a Stevens County farmer who hoped to use part of his 250 acres for a test hemp crop. “What does Minnesota want to do: Do we want to be left behind everybody or do some research of this incredible crop and get more money into farmers’ pockets?'"

It’s important to note that if farmers could sell hemp, or process it for use in one of its 25,000 applications, funding wouldn’t be necessary. Farmers would plant the crop on their own dime in anticipation of turning a profit.

The current impasse reveals the fatal flaw in Minnesota’s federally compliant strategy and indicates further action is necessary if the state is serious about developing a legitimate hemp market.

The state has two possible ways forward.

The first is for the state to pass a bill that simply removes hemp from its list of controlled substances, an option Vermont and Connecticut have taken. This allows farmers to grow and cultivate the hemp free from the fear of state prosecution, though it doesn’t prevent the feds from enforcing its prohibition. But the likelihood of federal action is remote because the feds lack the resources to maintain their hemp ban.

If Vermont is any indication, the fear of federal interference has little affect once a state removes its barriers.

Last summer, Vermont Public Radio reported on the fledgling hemp industry.

"The three hemp plots our reporter visited were all started with seed sold by Europeans and shipped here illegally, including the hemp seeds that Netaka White managed to get from France. “This is our humble hemp patch,” says White, gesturing to the area outside his home in Salisbury where he planted 1.5 ounces of seed. “It measures about eight by eight [feet].  I don’t even know what percentage of an acre that is.”

White expects to get 12 or more pounds of seed when he harvests his hemp crop in late September and he’ll use that to grow even more hemp next year. Most of the Vermont hemp farmers seem resigned that this first crop will go towards establishing a seed supply."

The industry appears to be moving forward this year. As of last spring, one plot in Vermont had 1,000 plants in the ground.

The other approach taken by Colorado, Washington, Maine and North Dakota removes the state ban and also creates a state licensing program to facilitate the development of a hemp industry.

These states have shown that simply ignoring federal regulation will facilitate hemp production within a state.

Due to its strict and unnecessary compliance with federal guidelines, Minnesota is not on its way a viable industrial hemp industry in the works. Instead, it’s got an unfunded research program with no actual hemp. While farmers, consumers and the general public could reap the economic gains from this burgeoning cash crop, senseless federal rules and the state’s unwillingness to reject them has made that an impossibility.

Minnesotans should push for their state legislators to introduce their own version of the Hemp Freedom Act and remove this unnecessary barrier to the production of a $500 million per year crop.

Shane Trejo and Michael Boldin contributed to this post.