Edinburg, North Dakota — You wouldn’t expect David Monson to talk favorably about something that’s illegal. After all, he’s the Assistant House Majority Leader in the North Dakota Legislature, is superintendent of schools here and is a well-respected Cavalier County farmer.
But Monson sees an agricultural gold mine in industrial hemp, the flora cousin to marijuana. As a result, he has been making presentations for three years and wants to see it become legal on a federal level so North Dakota farmers can benefit from its marketability.
Monson sponsored three bills in the Legislature that legalizes the plant, takes it off the noxious weed list and urges Congress to recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana. With strong support in the House and Senate, North Dakota thus became the first state in the United States to legalize industrial hemp, however, Drug Enforcement Agency restrictions continue to circumvent the April 17, 1999 state law.
And despite a number of other hurdles in the past year, Monson remains optimistic about the future of industrial hemp in North Dakota.
“We’ll just have to see if we can get more bills passed to keep pressure on the DEA,” Monson said. “I don’t know what else we can do. The governor signed all the bills. We thought we were sending a strong message.”
In addition, Cole Gustafson, the associate dean of research in the College of Agriculture at NDSU, has applied and reapplied for permits to grow a research plot at the Fargo university. “Cole applied, was turned down and applied again,” Monson said. “But we kind of expected it. We knew the DEA would drag their feet. Other states ran into the same trouble.”
University plots have been granted, however, in Hawaii and Indiana. “Hawaii’s argument is they’re a tropical climate and not many other places can do research year round,” he added. “Canada and Europe have similar climates to us. The DEA looks at that and sees similar growing conditions as here and denies us. The plot in Indiana that researches marijuana and hemp, has been there for years.”
The legislative message is beginning to come from the private sector as well, according to Monson. He said a woman named Betty Keenan, a strong benefactor to colleges in the southeast, has become pro-industrial hemp, as has actor Woody Harrelson and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who is looking at hemp for its environmental benefits.
“When you start getting credible people behind this, DEA can’t ignore it anymore,” Monson explained. “Their idea has been zero tolerance.”
There is already plenty of interest to process industrial hemp in North Dakota, according to Monson, but Customs and Immigration personnel have caused trouble with Canadian producers, getting the raw material across the border. Processing hemp seed and fiber is legal under U.S. federal law but it’s illegal to grow hemp anywhere in the U.S., according to federal law.
“The straw board plant at Finley or Wahpeton has been asking about buying the product across the international boundary and mixing it with their straw,” Monson said. “But the leaves are illegal to bring across. And if the DEA is stopping shipments of sterilized seed, they wouldn’t like bales of fiber with leaves mixed in.”
Monson talked about another market for fiber that could explode if developed right. “I know this guy in Ontario who uses the fiber to put in car mouldings,” he said. “There are markets, we just have to develop them.”
But right now the biggest markets are in oil and food for human consumption, according to Monson. He said there have been some productivity problems in the past, but if AgGrow Oils in Carrington could be opened again, it could provide the perfect facility for extracting hemp oil.
“If we could get high-quality oils to work on that press, I think we could find a niche and get that plant re-opened,” Monson said.
On Oct. 31, Monson will attend a hemp conference in Raleigh, N.C., and is scheduled to be part of a panel on the program. He said Nader is also expected to attend and Monson has invited several NDSU people including Gustafson and Randy Mehlhoff, the director of the NDSU Research Station at Langdon.
Then, on Nov. 3 and 4, Monson, who is on the board of directors of the North American Industrial Hemp Conference, will be in Chicago at the annual meeting, talking to various groups, sitting on a panel of experts and listening.
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