Dozens of North Dakota farmers are seeking to become licensed industrial hemp growers under new state rules that took effect Jan. 1, says North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, despite federal moves that make the program’s viability uncertain.
If North Dakota successfully becomes the first U.S. state to allow commercial hemp cultivation, it would be Montana’s second neighbor to do so (Canada became the first in 1998). In 2001, the Montana Legislature approved industrial hemp farming dependent on federal approval, which hasn’t been forthcoming.
Johnson says North Dakota has struggled for the last decade to find a way to allow farming of industrial hemp, which contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive drug in marijuana. The rules enacted in North Dakota require a background check, fingerprinting and a $200 fee to become a licensed farmer, and after receiving state authorization, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approval is also required. Since it doesn’t distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana, the DEA requires a $2,293 application fee for manufacturing controlled substances, and Johnson says a written request he sent several weeks ago asking the DEA to waive that fee has gone unanswered, as have repeated phone calls.
DEA special agent Steve Robertson says “the DEA isn’t going to rush to a judgment on [North Dakota’s request],” but that the federal Controlled Substances Act renders any plant with any THC illicit. Johnson, meanwhile, says the state will move ahead with issuing hemp licenses in an effort to force DEA to respond.
“Their strategy has been to ignore everything and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist,” Johnson says. “We’re on to their strategy and we’re not going to play that game anymore.”
Ron Zellar, spokesman for Montana’s Department of Agriculture, says Montana hasn’t pursued hemp farming since 2002, when the DEA rejected the state’s appeal for approval a second time.
“With two very clear rejections, it’s our position that until someone indicates there’s some movement on the DEA’s part, it’s futile for the state to keep trying,” Zellar says, though he speculates that success on North Dakota’s part could trigger a second look at local hemp farming efforts.