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Hemp crusader is the picture of respectability — and N. Dakota’s next House Speaker

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – David Monson has heard all the jokes from bemused neighbors.

“Is your farm going to pot, Dave?”

“Hey, Dave, how’s your weed control?”

A wheat, barley and canola grower from Osnabrock, N.D., hard on the Canadian border, Monson is one of two North Dakota farmers trying to sue the federal government into relaxing drug-war restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp, a relative of marijuana.

A federal district judge in North Dakota tossed their lawsuit, but an attorney for Monson and Wayne Hauge told a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, meeting in St. Paul Nov. 12, that the farmers should be allowed to use state-issued permits to produce hemp seed and oil without fear of federal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act.

The appeals panel also heard from a Justice Department attorney, who said Congress has the authority to regulate the crop and has decided its cultivation should be restricted.

David Monson
David Monson

Getting ready for a new job
Monson wasn’t in court Wednesday. He was in Bismarck, getting hired for a new job. In January, he’ll become Speaker of the North Dakota House of Representatives, where for several sessions he has been assistant Republican majority leader.

No, this is no pot-smoking hippie trying to sneak something past the narcs.

In January 2007, a few days after Monson became the first North Dakota farmer to apply for a state permit to grow hemp – a permitting process he had brought into being as a leader in the state House – he allowed me, then a Star Tribune reporter, to tag along as he attended church in his rural, conservative home district.

“He had to get fingerprinted!” friend Howard Hove said, chuckling. “And a background check!”

Tall, suited and neatly trimmed, the picture of conservative rural respectability, Monson warmly greeted Hove and other neighbors, most of them farmers, as he escorted his 79-year-old mother to a pew. He was their state representative, president of the Lutheran congregation,  superintendent of his school district and a longtime member of the Eagles – the social club, not the band.

Besides the ribbing from friends – “You’ll come home some night and find an acre missing, Dave” – Monson has found himself in a national spotlight, a person of interest to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the legalize-marijuana crowd. In July last year, the New York Times paid a visit to Osnabrock and found him listening to Rush Limbaugh as he drove tractor through a shimmering field of canola.

“Look at me,” he demanded. “Do I look shady?”

A controlled substance since 1970
Hemp contains trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the substance that gives cousin marijuana its kick. Though hemp advocates insist it’s impossible to get a high from smoking hemp, the DEA has classified it as a controlled substance since 1970.

Roger Johnson, North Dakota commissioner of agriculture, sang hemp’s praises and decried federal “roadblocks” to its cultivation when he appeared before Congress in 2005 to champion Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s proposed Industrial Hemp Farming Act. It was hemp, Johnson said, that provided “the ropes and sails for Christopher Columbus’ ships, the canvas for Rembrandt’s paintings, and the parchment paper on which the Declaration of Independence was first drafted.”

Hemp was an important cash crop for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he said, and it was long commonly accepted for payment of state and federal taxes. “Today, it is used for soap, cosmetics, fertilizer, livestock bedding, strengthening additives, carpet, paper, paints, putty, plastics, automotive parts, a variety of food and nutritional supplements, clothing and shoes and much more.”

A leader during World War II

During World War II, a “Hemp for Victory” campaign initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed 400,000 pounds of hemp seeds to farmers and made North Dakota a leader in the production of industrial hemp – used for rope and other military purposes – until it became suspect after the war.

The feds still fear that legal hemp would lead to legal marijuana.

“Why is High Times Magazine so enthusiastic about hemp?” Tom Riley, of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, asked me last year. “Because they care about fiber?”

But hemp’s cultivation is legal and booming in Canada, just 25 miles from Monson’s farm, and many Canadian hemp products are sold in this country.

A hardy, pest-resistant crop
The hardy, fast-maturing, pest- and disease-resistant crop could be a lifesaver for northern U.S. wheat farmers struggling against crop diseases and a short growing season, Johnson said. It matures in less than four months, reinvigorates the soil and thrives without pesticides or herbicides.

Such practical benefits – and not any desire to be named “Man of the Year” by High Times Magazine – motivated Monson to challenge the federal restrictions.

Over the past 15 years, as the wet-cycle fungus known as scab has devastated wheat crops in the region, he has persuaded neighboring farmers and fellow legislators that hemp could save farms and help sustain rural institutions, including schools and churches – and a decidedly conservative way of life.

A written decision from the appeals panel isn’t expected for months.

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