Kahn, others promote the crop as economic tool for agriculture
Although the issue of medical marijuana seems dead for the duration of Session 2011, one related issue is making its way through the legislative machinery. Industrial hemp is gaining momentum at the Capitol, even though a proposal on the subject appears destined for trouble in public safety committees.
Despite existing federal law that puts hemp growers at risk of prosecution, advocates are gaining traction in Minnesota and at other state Capitols in their push to grow a crop that has multiple economic benefits related to making paper, rope, clothing and other products, said Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union.
“Even 10 farmers doing this would have an impact somewhere because of the machinery and seeds. Then you would have processing; that would create jobs because you’re either going to process it into paper or fibers for clothes and whatever products. Then, with manufacturing, it would have a positive impact all over,” Petersen said.
Industrial hemp differs from marijuana because it has low levels of the psychoactive element THC.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, has tacked on 30 co-authors to her Industrial Hemp Development Act. All five Republican co-authors, except for Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, are from rural southern Minnesota. House Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, is among the co-authors. Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, has also signed onto Kahn’s bill.
Hamilton scheduled a Wednesday hearing on the bill in his ag committee, where it passed on a voice vote and was sent on to Public Safety.
The bill has appeal because of its rural economic potential. However, House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee Chairman Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, opposes the bill.
“I come from farm country, and I own a farm myself. …I sympathize with them from a business aspect, but I think it would harm more people than it would benefit,” Cornish said.
Cornish and an association representing Minnesota police officers are concerned that young people could use industrial hemp to get high.
“The cops’ worry is that it’s not distinguishable from marijuana. It’s the same species, and it’s got a lower THC content. There are still people who call it Minnesota Green and put it in a blender and smoke it for a low-grade high. It might interest kids,” said Cornish, who is the Lake Crystal police chief.
Cornish, who has asked to hear the bill in his committee, said he hopes the panel members will “take this bill and shred it and let one of our pipe smokers smoke it,” Cornish said.
Minnesota is among 29 states that have either passed or introduced industrial hemp legislation, according to the Vote Hemp nonprofit advocacy group. Eight state legislatures have passed bills that allow for industrial hemp production or research.
The federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 limited industrial hemp production to farmers who have permission from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Farmers have not planted any hemp seeds because the DEA has not granted any farmers’ requests to grow hemp.
North Dakota has been industrial hemp’s test case; the state granted licenses to two farmers, but they were subsequently turned down by the DEA. Lawsuits have ensued in the North Dakota cases.
Federal law is a barrier to industrial hemp’s future in the U.S.; Canada, meanwhile, has allowed production of industrial hemp since 1998. Officials there estimate that 59 percent of the crop is exported to the U.S., according to a 2010 Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) report.
Minnesota law enforcement officials oppose Kahn’s bill, in part because it would put the state at odds with federal law enforcement officials.
Kahn, however, said her bill avoids a conflict by requiring the MDA’s rulemaking to be consistent with the federal government’s, and stipulating that prospective hemp farmers must have federal permission before the MDA issues a license. In other words, a ruling against the federal government in the North Dakota litigation is needed before Kahn’s bill, even if passed, would have any real meaning in Minnesota.
“Ours doesn’t kick in until the DEA has given a permit somewhere in the country,” Kahn said.
Even if Kahn’s bill is symbolic at the moment, she said she wants Minnesota to show the federal government that there is broad support among the states for growing industrial hemp.
In a case of strange bedfellows, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is one of the most influential national political figures on the right, is sponsoring the main industrial hemp bill in Congress. Kahn, a liberal Democrat, notes that they see eye to eye on industrial hemp, if not much else.
Industrial hemp usually has had a lower profile at the Legislature than proposals to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes. A medical marijuana proposal, which has also been introduced by Kahn, appears to be going nowhere. In contrast to previous sessions when legislators from both sides of the aisle pushed medical marijuana bills through several committees, neither the issue’s proponents nor detractors are aware of an effort to bring it up this session. Kahn’s medical marijuana bill is also on Wednesday’s agenda, but she does not plan to move the bill.
Industrial hemp has gained headway in the Legislature in previous legislative sessions. The legislative record features full Senate passage in 1999, when former Majority Leader Roger Moe carried the legislation that allowed for demonstration plots. (Kahn was the House author back then.)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty opposed industrial hemp during his two terms as governor.
In 2010 Minnesota legislators passed an omnibus agriculture bill signed by Pawlenty that asked the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to issue a report about industrial hemp. The report was released in December.
Peterson, of the farmers union, is optimistic about industrial hemp’s chances given the level of support in the House. The bipartisan support could lead to a floor amendment if Kahn’s bill gets bottled up in Cornish’s committee, he said.
Also of interest for Capitol scorekeepers is the new DFL administration.
A spokesperson for Gov. Mark Dayton said he has not commented yet on Kahn’s bill. The Dayton administration has ties to both sides of the industrial hemp debate.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), which endorsed Dayton during last year’s campaign, ardently opposes Kahn’s bill.
The MDA’s report on industrial hemp included a letter from MPPOA Executive Director Dennis Flaherty that law enforcement would incur crime lab costs to determine if hemp is the allowable low-grade THC or illegal marijuana.
“Additionally, peace officers would have great difficulty in determining whether detected or seized marijuana/hemp was the high-potency drug type or the low-grade variety,” Flaherty wrote.
Proponents of industrial hemp, however, think they have an ally in Dayton’s MDA commissioner, Dave Frederickson. Frederickson is a former president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose members have long supported industrial hemp legislation.
While there is momentum for the bill in the House, the Senate does not have a companion measure. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said he has not heard of any interest in industrial hemp among his colleagues in the upper chamber.