ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

It may look like marijuana but it's not likely to lead to any reefer madness.

The crop known as industrial hemp is a non-narcotic version of cannabis, better known for its fiber and oil than for its smoke. There's been a virtual ban on farming industrial hemp in America for nearly 50 years.

Now, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, a number of states are fighting to make hemp farming legal again. North Dakota is one of them.

CHERYL CORLEY: At this time of year in North Dakota, most farmers have finished planting their crops. At Osnabrock, a small rural town not far from the Canadian border, David Monson still has a few days of planting left.

Windy, rainy weather has left puddles of water on the farm's dark black soil.

State Representative DAVID MONSON (Republican, North Dakota; Assistant Majority Leader, North Dakota House of Representatives): This field is where I was going to plant my industrial hemp. Normally, this is a field that I plant experimental crops on.

CORLEY: What Monson typically grows is wheat, barley and canola. But as the assistant majority leader in North Dakota's House of Representatives, he's been the force behind laws laying the groundwork for hemp farming to make a comeback here.

Monson says farmers should be able to plant industrial hemp as an alternate rotation crop to help stave off plant diseases and give North Dakota farmers another cash crop. He says Canadian farmers began cultivating industrial hemp a decade ago.

State Rep. MONSON: Their government has figured out ways to do the field testing and it's just accepted as any other crop up there and they're up to 48,000 acres in the whole of Canada. And they're making some very nice money and we can't grow it because the DEA just will not approve a license or an application.

CORLEY: So while Americans can buy hemp products like textiles, oils and soaps, it's illegal to grow it. And here's why, industrial hemp contains very low levels of the psychoactive ingredient known as THC, about three-tenths of one percent or less. Marijuana typically has roughly 15 times that concentration.

North Dakota's agriculture commissioner Roger Johnson says industrial hemp is not a drug.

Mr. ROGER JOHNSON (Commissioner, Department of Agriculture, North Dakota): Anyone who tried to get high from smoking industrial hemp would probably just get nothing more than a sore throat and a headache out of the deal.

CORLEY: Even so, the federal government labels industrial hemp a controlled substance. Now, North Dakota and several other states like Maine, West Virginia and California have either passed or are working on legislation that approves of industrial hemp farming.

North Dakota also became the first state to issue commercial hemp farming licenses. And Commissioner Johnson says after meeting with DEA officials, the state set up a strict protocol, requiring farmers, for instance, to provide GPS locations of their designated hemp fields and to undergo criminal background checks before they could grow the crop.

So Johnson says he was disappointed when the DEA told him it would not be able to license growers before the planting season ended.

Mr. JOHNSON: We had sort of thought or, at least, hoped that with more and more activity on the state level and around the country that, you know, from legitimate units of government that the DEA, at some point, would say, well, maybe we should look at regulating industrial hemp differently than marijuana. Maybe we should quit pretending that they're both the same. But so far, they haven't.

CORLEY: A statement provided by the DEA said there would be no comment since the licensing application process is still underway.

Tom Riley with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy would also not talk, specifically, about North Dakota's case. But Riley agrees that industrial hemp is not marijuana. He says the federal government wants to help farmers but not marijuana enthusiasts who are trying to find a back doorway to grow the drug.

Mr. TOM RILEY (Spokesman, Office of the National Drug Control Policy): It's kind of a shell game that's been played for 20 years now by the marijuana activists, which is if hemp could be legally grown and you've got a hemp field here and a hemp field there and a hemp field on the top 40 and another one behind the woods, there'd be ways that you could say, okay, maybe the patch over here on the far left of the field or the patch in the middle or every third row or whatever it is, you could grow the cannabis sativa plant.

CORLEY: That would be marijuana. And Commissioner Johnson says there are plenty of reasons not to believe there would be an infiltration of industrial hemp crops. He says cross-pollination would make any marijuana much less potent, and there would also be strict controls. Of course, there's another looming question: Is there really a hemp market for American farmers?

Thousands of people showed up for a Green Festival in Chicago last month. And vendors have plenty of hemp products on display - clothes made out of hemp, hemp oil, hemp bread, even hemp milk.

Ms. KATIE SAKALOFSKY(ph) (Employee, Living Harvest; Participant, Green Festival, Chicago): We just came out with it in January.

CORLEY: Katie Sakalofsky works for the company Living Harvest.

Ms. SACALOVSKY: What it is, is it's a ground-up type of seed, made from the whole nut. We add water and we sweetened it with brown rice syrup.

CORLEY: Farmer David Monson says it's these types of business opportunities that would be open to farmers in North Dakota if they were able to grow industrial hemp. He says North Dakota has passed all the laws it can to try to bring hemp farming back. So he's taking the next step - preparing a lawsuit against the DEA. Monson says a crop that's legitimate on farmland across the world should be allowed to grow here in the United States.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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