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Is hemp Minnesota's next big crop?

John Strohfus and son Martin, 5, look at hemp seeds stored on their farm in Afton this month. Strohfus, president of Minnesota Hemp Farms, is one of the state’s leading advocates promoting hemp farming. He was among the first seven farmers to apply to grow it in Minnesota, and is one of 41 farmers today who cultivate hemp on 710 acres around the state. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
John Strohfus, president of MN Hemp Farms, shows hemp stalks which contain hemp fiber. He is one of the state's leading advocates promoting hemp farming. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL — John Strohfus is rehabilitating the outlaw of Minnesota agriculture.

"People think this is new," said Strohfus, as he sifted hemp seed through his fingers at his Afton farm. "But the only thing new is that farmers can grow it now."

Farmers like Strohfus are tip-toeing into the hemp market, planting fields in Woodbury, Afton, Dakota County and across the state. State officials are encouraging them, saying that hemp would stimulate the state's economy.

Yet the growers are shackled by the fact that hemp — unlike any other crop — has a lingering reputation as a source of dangerous drugs. The plant is related to marijuana, which is listed in the same category as heroin and LSD by federal officials.

Farmers have been able to grow hemp in Minnesota for three years, and only with restrictions. As the rules change, farmers and consumers are in a kind of limbo, waiting for lawmakers to decide what is legal and what is not.

"Hemp has potential, but it's in a very weird area," said Andrea Vaubel, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture.

But the liberation of hemp might be coming soon.

Hemp would be removed from the federal list of illegal drugs by one version of the upcoming 2018 federal Farm Bill. If that language is passed, consumers would see hemp in products from clothing to cookies to cosmetics.

Because Minnesota's climate is perfectly suited for growing hemp, said Vaubel, the once-illegal plant would join corn and soybeans as leading crops in Minnesota.

"It would be a game-changer for Minnesota farmers," said Paul Frank, who grows hemp in Dakota County. "It would be huge."

It's not marijuana

Hemp wasn't always the black sheep of agriculture.

Hemp and marijuana both contain the intoxicating chemical THC — which is why they have been linked together since the 1930s as dangerous drugs.

"We have spent the last 90 years unlinking them," said hemp grower Frank.

Marijuana naturally has large amounts of THC, and is usually cultivated for the purpose of making users high. Hemp is the opposite — naturally growing with tiny amounts of THC, and cultivated to reduce it even further.

Hemp is grown for the long, silky strands used in clothing — such as the original Levi's jeans. The seeds are nutritious, and the oil is believed to have health benefits.

The U.S. government has flip-flopped on hemp before. During World War II, when hemp was illegal, the government nevertheless produced the movie "Hemp for Victory" to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the war effort.

But after the war, hemp reverted to its status as a criminalized cousin of marijuana.

The first step toward rehabilitation was with the 2014 Farm Bill, which authorized states to approve the cultivation of hemp. One year later, Minnesota did.

Afton hemp grower Strohfus was an early supporter. He was among the first seven farmers to apply in Minnesota, and one of 41 farmers today who cultivate hemp on 710 acres around the state.

But like an ex-con released from prison, hemp is still treated suspiciously.

Hemp farmers must submit to background checks. By law, they must agree not to raise hemp to make money.

"Hemp must be raised for research purposes as part of a pilot program," said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the state Board of Pharmacy, which monitors controlled substances.

Most confusing of all, a key product from hemp is probably illegal to sell.

"This is where things get messy," said George Weiblen, a University of Minnesota professor who is an expert in the genetics of hemp.

Illegal? Yes and no.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-intoxicating compound found in marijuana and hemp. It is sold online and in retail stores.

CBD is usually marketed with a list of health claims — related to anxiety, chronic pain, depression, indigestion, psoriasis and cancer.

None of those claims has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. And selling CBD is still — probably — illegal.

"The Drug Enforcement Agency's position is very clear. CBD is illegal," said professor Weiblen. "But hemp advocates do not accept that. It's a very gray area at this point."

CBD products put police in an awkward position.

Suppose a person was busted for possession of CBD oil. If it came from marijuana, police could make an arrest for felony drug possession. Yet if that same chemical — CBD — came from hemp, it probably would be considered legal, said the Pharmacy Board's Wiberg.

Most law enforcement officers are taking a wait-and-see approach. "This is a confusing, fluid situation," said Wiberg.

He doesn't want to deprive anyone of a beneficial product. But without regulation, there is no way to know if a product contains the right amount of CBD, or any at all.

Customers sometimes take unproven health products, and ignore medicines proven to be effective. When CBD is packaged to resemble medicine or gummy bears, Wiberg starts to worry.

"Then they say to take one of these a day to help anxiety. That is where the problem comes in," he said.

From farm to consumers

Strohfus, the president of Minnesota Hemp Farms, has harvested his hemp crop for the year.

In his shed, he runs his fingers through the seeds that are just beginning to take root in American consumer products.

He points to the hemp seeds now sold as food in Walmart and Target. Outdoor-gear maker Patagonia is selling jackets made of hemp, and Mercedes-Benz uses hemp fiber in car interiors.

And if hemp loses its bad reputation, Strohfus said, watch out — the gold rush of hemp will begin. Hemp will roll into cookies, cosmetics, bathrobes and beer.

Even a hemp cola could be on the horizon. Coca-Cola is examining the market potential of soft drinks with CBD, according to a September report in Bloomberg News.

Demand for hemp will soar, he said, benefiting Minnesota farmers. "I could see where General Mills would say they want 40,000 tons a week," Strohfus said.

As he leaned on a bale of hemp stalks in his shed, he gazed at it warmly.

"I think this has a huge upside," he said.