Constable: 'Ditch weed' still part of marijuana's new frontier in Illinois

In the summer of 1970, when marijuana was giving Pabst Blue Ribbon a run as the drug of choice among rural teenagers, I was a sixth-grader chopping it down.

The Chicago Tribune wrote about the law enforcement billboard a few miles from our family farm outside Goodland, Indiana, that warned, "If marijuana is your bag, don't fill it in Newton County."

Young people, or "hippies" as they often were called then, would drive from Chicago and the suburbs to fill garbage bags with what we called "ditch weed." That Cannabis sativa L (the L is in honor of 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus) is a subspecies of the Cannabis sativa "pot" plant that young people smoked from their "bongs" and "joints" as a way to get high.

I didn't know anything about smoking the stuff, but I did know that ditch weed was sturdy enough to require several whacks with the scythe before it toppled. The plant could grow as tall as the basketball hoops on our farm and was tougher than the baling twine wrapped around hay harvested from the back 40.

That tough quality is why my grandfather, in a patriotic gesture, planted industrial hemp during World War II as part of the "Hemp for Victory" initiative to provide our troops with sturdy material for ropes and parachute cords.

That same industrial hemp is making a legal comeback in Illinois, according to Jeff Cox, chief of the bureau of medicinal plants for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which has granted industrial hemp licenses to 556 growers and 118 processors this year, including some in the suburbs. It costs $100 to apply, and accepted growers can buy a license ranging from $375 for a year to $1,000 for three years.

"Most of the farmers are just testing the water," says Cox, who adds the typical hemp field occupies only half an acre, and permits start at just half that. Indoor growing locations can be as small as 500 square feet. People are motivated to grow industrial hemp in large part because the plant produces cannabidiol, or CBD, the ingredient found in some prescribed medications and a variety of over-the-counter products that legally can't make health claims but are hailed by some as the cure for whatever ails us.

Hemp industry leaders are hoping the plant also will find a market to make paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, flooring and animal feed.

"Hemp was grown throughout the Midwest by the hemp industries for the war. The plants we see in ditches are the remnants," says Win Phippin, a Western Illinois University professor of plant breeding and genetics. Phippin has a permit from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to legally harvest that plant, which had been classified as a "noxious weed."

Readers who are high right now might still be marveling about how cool it is to say Win Phippin out loud, but the rest of you should know that Phippin is harvesting wild hemp for a research project. He's testing ditch weed and comparing its level of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to the levels found in marijuana plants cultivated for the purpose of getting you high. His research is expected to show the wild stuff has way less THC.

Phippin will take cuttings and replant them at his lab in Macomb, where he can evaluate them for THC levels. Industrial hemp, which was made legal to grow under the 2018 Farm Bill, generally has 0.3% or less of THC.

For comparison, the new marijuana that will be legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020, includes a 10% tax on cannabis products with a THC level at or below 35%, a 20% tax on all cannabis-infused products, and a 25% tax on cannabis with a THC level above 35%.

While great care is taken to cultivate the recreational marijuana coming next year, ditch weed is hard to kill. Seventy-five years after people last grew it intentionally, it still pops up on its own. Native to Asia, the plant apparently has been around as long, if not longer, than people, according to a 1980 book titled "Marihuana: The First 12,000 Years." It's been in the United States since before we were the United States. The word "canvas," the covering of choice for wagon trains, comes from the Arabic word for hemp.

Our federal government didn't impose restrictions on its use until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which set the tone for Congress in 1970 declaring marijuana as a Schedule I substance, illegal and without medical value, putting it in the same category as heroin and lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture says growers of industrial hemp must be licensed by the state and be subject to random testing to check THC levels. Anything above 0.7% THC is declared "wacky tobacky" and must be destroyed.

The biggest concern for people smoking ditch weed today might not be the THC level but the ingesting of chemicals used in whatever toxic weed killers the plant sucked up.

Most sixth-graders with scythes have been replaced by Roundup.

In 2002, agents of the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group carried stacks of marijuana plants cut from a field near Wadsworth. Grown during World War II, industrial hemp still grows wild. Courtesy of Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group
Law enforcement agents in Illinois destroyed this marijuana grown illegally near Wadsworth in 2002. Industrial hemp, remnants from a time when farmers grew it for the fiber, still grows wild in Illinois, but doesn't provide the high of recreational marijuana. Courtesy of Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group
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