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Drug warriors may need to hire a botany expert

Posted on August 29, 2000

St Paul, Minnesota — National Guardsmen were pretty high on themselves last week when they burned 35,000 stalks of marijuana growing wild on a private pasture south of Hastings as part of “Operation Emerald Harvest.” As one staff sergeant joked to Pioneer Press reporter Hannah Allam, “We’re breaking some hearts today.”

But Tari Sullivan, owner of the Minneapolis head shop Third Stone from the Sun, was not broken-hearted for the reasons you might imagine.

“Oh, what a terrible waste of building materials,” she sighed, upon hearing that the weeds whacked were not described as the wide-spaced, low-growing type with flowering buds favored by those in her line, but spindly stalks that reached a full 8 feet in height. “You could have used that hemp for textiles, building materials, paper — that’s really a shame.”

Samples from the field have yet to be analyzed for content of the narcotic delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, but amateur cannabis experts think police may have overstated the pot haul’s estimated street value of $125 million.

“I wouldn’t pay anyone for ditchweed,” said Grassroots Party Senate candidate David Daniels, referring to the nearly THC-free form of marijuana planted throughout the Midwest during World War II. “Unless I wanted a headache and a sore throat.”

Though such eradication projects have been making news as part of our ongoing war on drugs, they haven’t yielded much real weed. In Vermont, the state auditor’s office found that 78 percent of marijuana reported eradicated in the state in 1996 was actually ditchweed, which most self-respecting potheads say is as intoxicating as a poppyseed muffin.

No matter, says Bruce Preece, senior special agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, who shudders at the headaches law enforcement would have if hemp were made legal. “If it has THC, it’s marijuana by federal definition.”

The plants look the same when they’re young, but marijuana (5 percent THC by weight) is cultivated in wide-spaced plantings for its flowers, while hemp (less than l percent THC) is planted densely and cultivated for stalks that can reach 15 feet in height. Though the 30-some countries that grow hemp claim they can tell the difference between these two plants (even from the air), what confuses the issue in this country is that the most ardent defenders of hemp historically tend to be the most habitual users of marijuana — an association that conflates the two.

But if you can get past the smoke, it’s clear why Minnesota has joined North Dakota, Maryland and Hawaii with new legislation paving the way for hemp research (even though the Controlled Substances Act makes it illegal). Hemp is a sustainable, naturally weed-resistant crop that when grown in rotation with wheat has been shown to boost yield by 20 percent. Unlike wood pulp, hemp paper is naturally bright. Hemp seed oil and fibers can be made into everything from cosmetics to construction materials to car parts.

Though five other states are now joining the push to lift the ban on hemp, State Fair crop artist Mark Dahlager knows firsthand the hard road to hemp acceptance. After spending weeks crafting a portrait of the late Jerry Garcia out of sterilized hemp seed, he discovered his entry was removed from competition.

“I still haven’t gotten a straight answer yet,” Dahlager said. (State Fair officials didn’t return my call, either.) “It’s possible they objected because they considered hemp a weed. Now it’s hidden away, where I guess it won’t be a ‘bad influence’ on children.”

And where did Dahlager score the dangerous controlled substance he used in his work?

“I got it from a bird seed company off the Internet.”

Copyright © 2000, Pioneer Press. All rights reserved.

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