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Judge: Congress Should Get ND Farmers' Hemp Case


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BISMARCK, N.D. – The federal judge handling two farmers' lawsuit against the U.S. government over the right to grow industrial hemp says the matter might be better handled by Congress than the courts. "Isn't the best remedy to amend the definition of industrial hemp (in federal law)?" Judge Dan Hovland asked during a recent court hearing. "To me, it seems like the easiest solution."

North Dakota farmers Wayne Hauge and Dave Monson want Hovland to bar the federal government from prosecuting them for growing industrial hemp under state regulations approved last year.

Hemp – which can be used for a variety of products, from rope to skin lotion – falls under federal anti-drug rules because it has trace amounts of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol that is found in its cousin, marijuana.

The Justice Department says federal law classifies hemp as a controlled substance under Drug Enforcement Administration regulation. The department's lawyers have asked that Hovland dismiss the farmers' lawsuit, and the judge pledged to decide by the end of the month.

Hemp "is still marijuana for the purpose of federal law," Justice Department lawyer Wendy Ertmer told Hovland at the hearing last week.

Joseph Sandler, an attorney for the farmers, said the federal Controlled Substances Act exempts such products as sterilized hemp seed and fiber, which is what Hauge and Monson plan to produce. He also said it is unlikely that farmers would used industrial hemp crops to secretly grow marijuana because their fields would be documented with the government and subject to search.

In February, Monson and Hauge received their state licenses to grow industrial hemp, the first such licenses issued in the country. They were issued under North Dakota Agriculture Department rules approved late last year. The licenses are worthless without DEA approval, however, and the agency has not acted on the farmers' applications. North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson hand-delivered them to the DEA in mid-February along with the farmers' nonrefundable $2,293 annual federal registration fees.

The farmers say the DEA's failure to approve their applications thwarted their plans to get a hemp crop in the ground last spring. The government says it was not reasonable for the farmers to expect a quick decision, and that the farmers should wait for a DEA decision before suing. Hovland was skeptical that the DEA will ever approve the farmers' application. "I think we can all sit here and agree it ain't gonna happen," he said.

Monson called the DEA's inaction on the applications "a de facto denial," saying the government can simply wait to rule until it is too late for farmers to plant a crop.

Ertmer and Sandler agreed with Hovland that a change in federal law might be the best method of dealing with the issue of industrial hemp cultivation. Hovland said legislation has been introduced in Congress to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.

Adam Eidinger, a spokesman for Vote Hemp, a nonprofit lobbying group that is funding the farmers' lawsuit, said hearings on that bill are not expected until next spring. He said many members of Congress want to wait on legislation until the North Dakota legal case is resolved.

"Really, North Dakota is a test case," Eidinger said. "If we succeed, we'll be able to see if farmers can grow the crop. If we fail, it puts more pressure on Congress to act."

Source: Great Falls Tribune (MT)
Copyright: 2007 Great Falls Tribune
Contact: Great Falls Tribune - www.greatfallstribune.com - Great Falls, MT
Website: Great Falls Tribune - www.greatfallstribune.com - Great Falls, MT
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