Pubdate: Thu, 01 Apr 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company
Author: Christopher S. Wren


BISMARCK, N.D. -- Dennis Carlson sold his first wheat, grown on a
field borrowed from his parents, in 1975, when he was 14 years old. He
earned $4.51 a bushel and resolved to follow his father, grandfather
and great-grandfather into farming.

Nearly 24 years later, spring wheat is selling for $2.91 a bushel, and
Carlson worries whether he can afford to plant next month. "We're
going to get a low price," he said. "And if we get a bumper crop, it's
going to get lower."

Battered by sinking commodity prices and rising costs, Carlson and
other wheat farmers are looking across the Canadian border at a crop
they say could help save them -- if only it were legal. That crop is
hemp, a non-intoxicating look-alike cousin of marijuana grown around
the world for its fiber, seed and oil. But long identified with
marijuana both by law enforcement and the counterculture, it is banned
in the United States as part of the war on drugs.

As farmers from Hawaii to North Dakota to Vermont lobby state
legislatures to study hemp's potential and make it legal, they are
opposed by federal officials unwilling to relax drug laws even
symbolically, whether by endorsing marijuana's medical use, or
approving a once-common crop, hemp.

Until recently, the White House's Office of National Drug Control
Policy asserted that making hemp legal would send the wrong message,
"especially to our youth at a time when adolescent drug use is
rising." But in late March its director, Gen. Barry McCaffrey,
indicated in an interview that his opposition was softening.

"If people believe that hemp fiber can be sold in the marketplace for
a profit, and aren't actually trying to normalize the growing of
marijuana around America, to the extent you want to grow hemp fiber
we'd be glad to work with you," McCaffrey said. But as a profitable
crop, he said, "I think it's going nowhere."

But in North Dakota, where the Republican-controlled Legislature
appears likely to enact laws promoting hemp, Carlson said: "We're all
desperate.  We're trying to find something that will change our
outlook, and hemp is one of many crops."

It does not help that hemp remains identified with the counterculture,
its products -- from oils to clothing -- often sold in shops that sell
rolling papers, pipes and other drug paraphernalia, its cause cheered
on by marijuana advocates.

"They are our worst enemies," said Gale Glenn, a tobacco grower in
Winchester, Ky. "If marijuana didn't exist, hemp would be growing here
on hundreds of thousands of acres."

Legislation to revive hemp passed in Hawaii this month and has been
introduced in legislatures in North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota,
Virginia, Vermont and Hawaii.

The federal Controlled Substances Act says the government does not
intend to prevent states from legislating in this area. But even with
state approval, hemp growers would need permits from the Drug
Enforcement Administration, which so far has resisted.

"There's widespread bipartisan support for this becoming a crop in
North Dakota," state Sen. Joel Heitkamp said. "The problem is at the
federal level."

State Rep. David Monson, a farmer and school superintendent who
sponsored the North Dakota legislation, said, "I think 99 percent of
the people in my district, when you show them the bottom line, they're
ready to go."

After Canada made hemp legal a year ago, about 5,000 acres were
planted with hemp, said Geof Kime, president of Hempline, a hemp
growing and processing company in Delaware, Ontario.

Monson recalled watching his neighbor across the border in Manitoba
grow 23 acres of hemp that netted about $250 an acre. "When he came
out with all those profits, we were really upset," Monson said.

The harvested hemp can be imported into the United States for
processing, "but we can't grow it ourselves," said Jeffrey Gain, who
promotes the revival of hemp as a director of the North American
Industrial Hemp Council.

Hemp flourished as a cash crop through most of American history.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations.
The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp-fiber paper. Hemp
supplied early Americans with rope, sails, clothing and other

But in 1937, Congress enacted a ban on marijuana that came to
encompass hemp. During World War II, after imports of Manila hemp from
the Philippines were cut off, the government distributed seeds for
farmers to grow in a "Hemp For Victory" drive, but once the war ended,
hemp was banned again. By then, synthetic fibers like nylon were
taking its place.

Environmentalists describe hemp as a renewable, biodegradable resource
that can be used in paper, fabrics, building material and even
automobile moldings. Farmers say it is a crop that needs few
pesticides, shades out weeds, resists erosion -- and can make money.
"This is not a panacea," Mrs. Glenn said, "but it's one of the answers."

Dr. Paul Mahlberg, a cell biologist at Indiana University, has a
license from the DEA to grow experimental marijuana and hemp. He
described them as varieties of cannabis sativa, a species whose cell
structure he has studied for 30 years.

"If you had hemp and marijuana here and set it on the table, could you
tell the difference?" he said. "The answer is no, not in young ones."

But, he said, "When you're growing it in the field and it's planted,
you can." Each, he said, could easily be identified from the air.

Hemp is densely planted and grown as tall as 15 feet to develop the
stalks and kill off leaves. By contrast, marijuana plants are short,
bushy and spaced three to four feet apart to encourage the leaves and
flowers that deliver the psychoactive ingredient delta-9
tetrahydrocannabinol, popularly called THC. Hemp is also harvested
before it flowers, and marijuana afterward.

Both varieties have THC: Industrial hemp has less than 1 percent THC
by weight, rendering it ineffectual as a drug, while marijuana
contains 5 percent THC or more by weight. Canada and some European
countries require cultivated hemp to have a THC content of 0.3 percent
or less.

"What we're working for now is to produce a zero-percent THC,"
Mahlberg said.

In rural areas, neglected hemp has degenerated into a feral remnant
called ditch weed, with low THC content. "There's a standing joke in
our corner of the state that no self-respecting marijuana smoker would
touch the stuff," said state Sen. Russell Thane of North Dakota.

Thane said National Guardsmen and law-enforcement officials spend
weekends uprooting ditch weed. "It's probably a poor utilization of
time," he said. "You don't have anybody coming from around the United
States to get it."

In Vermont, the state auditor's office determined that 78 percent of
the marijuana reported eradicated in the state, and 99 percent
destroyed nationwide with federal funds, in 1996 was ditch weed.

"The eradication is somewhat misdirected because they're destroying
remnants of the old hemp," Mahlberg said. "Some of the hemp they're
destroying is close to zero THC."

Law-enforcement officials argue that marijuana could be hidden in hemp
fields. But hemp would actually be a weapon against marijuana,
Mahlberg said, because cross-pollinating with hemp would dilute
marijuana's potency.

In theory, marijuana pollen could also affect hemp. But hemp planted
in quantity -- Canada requires at least 10 acres -- would overwhelm
marijuana. Andy Graves, a farmer who heads the Kentucky Hemp Growers
Cooperative, a group trying to make hemp legal again, said marijuana
growers would find hemp farmers "their worst nightmare, because our
pollens will cross."

On March 3, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by Graves' group
challenging the government's ban on hemp, because Kentucky state law
forbids it too. But with their tobacco quotas slashed 28.8 percent
this year, some farmers are giving hemp another look.

"A third of our income is down the drain because of the quota,"
Dorothy Robertson, a farmer in Bethel, Ky., said. "Farmers have their
backs against the wall."

Tobacco earns more money, but diversifying into hemp makes sense to
farmers because it could be processed locally, creating more work.
Tribby Vice, a tobacco and dairy farmer in Fleming County, Ky., said
hemp would provide healthy bedding for his 80 cows and would make a
good rotational crop. "The equipment we have for tobacco we can take
and use for hemp," he said. "We don't have to go out and buy new equipment."

The farmers said they could live with the kind of controls that other
countries impose. Canada requires that every hemp farmer have a
license and police background check, use seed certified to produce 0.3
percent THC, report the precise location of his crop and open it for
random inspection, Kime said.

In North Dakota, Carlson said, "If there's been any group of people
who've been against drugs, it's the farmers. And if hemp becomes
legal, we'll make sure that marijuana won't get in
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