Wisconsin, tribes lags behind hemp production movement
The loosening of federal restraints in recent years for all states regarding the cultivation, research, possession and selling of marijuana and its non-psychoactive second cousin hemp for various purposes has local hemp proponents as well as several Native American tribes up in arms over what they perceive to be a no-brainer in their battle to decriminalize the plant.
“Officially our tribe hasn’t taken a stance yet on the growing of industrial hemp,” Oneida Nation Councilmember Tehassi Hill said. “The issue has been discussed as a committee during meetings but it hasn’t been addressed yet as an official Business Committee action. It is a crop that we would consider very valuable and viable to be grown on our reservation. Hemp has many attributes that would be very supportive of the environmental work that we continue to do on the reservation including clean up and sustainability efforts.”
Hemp requires very little in the way of pesticides to be applied to the planting fields and would therefore also be a valuable contribution to the tribe’s agricultural production programs, Hill said. “However, the current status of hemp on the Oneida Reservation has been put on hold due in part to the recent actions taken with the Menominee Reservation and their court cases that’ve been in the news recently,” Hill said.
In a first move by a Native American tribe in Wisconsin, the Menominee Indian Tribe leadership decided to exercise their rights as a sovereign nation in 2015 and grew approximately 30,000 Cannabis Sativa L. hemp plants in an attempt to pursue a new source of much needed revenue. In October 2015, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) responded by raiding the hemp grow and seizing all of the plants which they referred to as marijuana. The Menominee Indian Tribe fired back by suing the federal government arguing the plants were industrial hemp and that the State of Wisconsin has allowed the tribal government to enforce their own criminal laws free from state jurisdiction.
In May of 2016 U.S. District Judge William Griesbach dismissed the Menominee’s lawsuit saying that the tribe had to abide by federal law that permits the growing of hemp only where it is allowed by state law. Griesbach compared the federal hemp law to state compacts which permit Native American tribes to operate gaming casinos only where gambling is permitted by state law, although he did question the heavy-handed actions of the DEA in raiding the Menominee hemp grow operation.
“Some of my colleagues and I have bounced some ideas off each other,” Hill said. “It’s going to take a bit of an educational push at the state level. We may push for the passing of legislation that is specific for a tribe, or even Oneida, that would allow for us to grow and research industrial hemp in Wisconsin. It’s not impossible to do because it’s been done it in the past specifically for us on other issues like the liquor license.”
For their part, Wisconsin’s government appears to be in no rush to join the growing list of states that are permitting farmers to grow and cultivate the plant.
“Given that so many other states now have statutes supporting industrial hemp for commercial or research purposes, it is critical that Wisconsin be proactive on this issue,” Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo) told the Wisconsin State Farmer in 2015.
Considine brought forth Assembly Bill (AB) 215 that would have allowed for a state licensing process for the production of industrial hemp. At the same time Senate Bill (SB) 649 was also introduced that would have then required the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to issue those licenses.
In April 2016 both bills were shot down and so it seems, for the time being, Wisconsin will continue to lag behind what even three of its neighboring states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois have recognized as a legitimate and robust economic opportunity.
Hemp was last produced legally in Wisconsin in 1957 for a variety of purposes from body care products like oils to clothing fibers and even automobile parts. It’s also known to leech pollutants from soil making it farmable again and requires only about half as much water to maintain as other more conventional crops.
Hemp’s other viable uses include food (it is high in heart-healthy Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids), paper (1 acre of hemp can produce the same amount of paper as 4 acres of trees), biodiesel fuel, textiles, bioplastics and a variety of medical applications including the treatment of epilepsy.
Unfortunately for hemp growers the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 perpetually linked industrial hemp with marijuana and drug use. By 1970 the federal government placed marijuana, along with hemp, on its Controlled Substances list as a Schedule I drug and made no distinction between the two. A Schedule I listing means a drug has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use in the United States.
Although the federal government is not yet willing to remove marijuana from its Schedule I listing, a recent Associated Press story reported that the DEA informed the Federal Register that it will allow for further medical research of the drug. The DEA plans to expand the number of agencies that are permitted to grow pot for medical research purposes since the only institution that is allowed to do so at this time is the University of Missouri, the story reported.
The key difference between industrial hemp and marijuana lies in the amount of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active compound in the Cannabis sativa L. plant, present that produces a “high” when ingested or smoked. The THC content in marijuana is much higher than in hemp and ranges anywhere from three to 20 percent or more. The THC content in hemp, by comparison, is widely recognized as being .3 percent or less and thus produces no “high” if ingested.
In early 2014, the Obama Administration approved the Farm Act of 2014 which authorizes state’s Agriculture Departments, colleges and universities to grow hemp for academic or agricultural research purposes in such states where industrial hemp farming is legal under state law.
“This is the first time in American history that industrial hemp has been legally defined by our federal government as distinct from drug varieties of Cannabis. This is not just a boon to farmers, but to manufacturing industries as well,” Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra said in a statement following the passage of the Farm Act.
Currently 29 states have defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana and removed restrictions on its production, according to Vote Hemp.com. Wisconsin is still not among these states and with the failure of SB 649 and AB 215 it may be some time before any new legislation is introduced in Madison.
With the United States being the world’s largest consumer of hemp products and the bulk of its legal imports coming from foreign producers in Canada, China, and Europe many states as well as numerous tribal nations are missing out on the industrial and financial benefits of industrial hemp growing.
“The state of Minnesota has recently made a short addition to their agriculture law that permits licensed people to grow industrial hemp,” Hill said. “So we may bring that template forward to our Legislative Reference Office (LRO) to look into because if Minnesota is successful in the licensing and growing of industrial hemp as an agricultural product then it is quite possible that Oneida, as a tribal nation, could follow the same process that they followed as a state. A tribe should be able to follow that same process through federal guidelines.”