Industrial hemp is not your everyday marijuana plant.
Although it looks like marijuana, hemp contains a low level of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), so there are no psychoactive properties. THC is the active chemical in cannabis that produces the “high” associated with smoking marijuana.
About 18 hemp plants are growing in a front yard along Hwy. 96 on the north end of White Bear Lake. They're easy to spot. In fact, the guy growing them has fielded many questions from passersby, including Ramsey County deputies, curious about the well-exposed plants.
“People honk and cheer. Joggers stop and ask questions. It's been a great marketing tool,” said John Dugas, a microbiologist now working in the hemp business.
Two years ago, Dugas founded an extraction company for industrial hemp called Superior Extractions on White Bear Parkway. He processes hemp plants in his laboratory, extracting the oil to make high-purity cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD.
The versatile oil is used in skin creams, soap and vaping products, but mostly it serves a medicinal purpose for issues like pain management, anxiety, insomnia and inflammation.
Hemp plants are the same species of marijuana but legally contain less than 0.3% THC, Dugas explained. “Anything less is considered industrial hemp. Anything more is considered marijuana.” He is licensed by the state Department of Agriculture to grow hemp. Inspectors run compliance tests to make sure plants are under the limit. When mature, the plants, which are all female, are harvested and the oil in the flower extracted.
CBD oil has become a hot new product in Minnesota. The non-intoxicating extract, however, is unregulated, resulting in products that vary widely in purity.
“Basically, the advertised dosage on the product label may not be the same as the lab tests,” Dugas said. He recommends asking for a third-party lab test that should be available on the manufacturer's website or product packaging. “You want something above 84-85% CBD,” he noted. Most reputable companies have a QR code or bar code on the package that can be scanned, leading to a website and lab test for that product's batch.
Since Dugas extracts his own CBD, he controls the quality. He started growing hemp in his landlord's front yard to learn more about how it's cultivated. “I'm more a lab and chem guy,” added Dugas, a Hill-Murray grad who holds a degree in molecular biology from Colorado College.
There are many applications for the oil, and he has no trouble finding buyers, although Minnesota is considered an immature market.
Everything about the plant is usable. For centuries, rope was made from hemp. In fact, Minnesota was a major supplier in the 1940s. Other byproducts include grain for livestock and fiber for textiles.
“CBD is the buzz now, but we think hemp fiber and rope will be big in the next few years,” noted Dugas. Patagonia, he added, has a line of clothing made from hemp fiber, which is naturally anti-microbial and more elastic.
Hemp harvest reached its peak during World War II when the government encouraged domestic production. According to an online source, the government made a film titled “Hemp for Victory” in 1942, encouraging farmers to grow the crop. Minnesota was home to several hemp fiber plants but the industry declined after the war. The state still has an abundance of wild hemp descended from those crops.
Hemp expert John Ames, who is helping Dugas with his township test plot, said biodegradable plastics are another exciting byproduct. Straws and water bottles can be made from waste products from the crop, he said. “There is interesting potential there as far as renewable single-use alternatives.”
Ames is convinced CBD oil helped control his anxiety issue. “Anecdotally, I use CBD for anxiety and PTSD,” Ames shared. “I was heavily medicated and underwent a lot of therapy coming out of college in my early 20s. I discovered CBD and medical cannabis while visiting family on the West Coast and saw how much it helped my day to day. I'm on a high CBD daily dose and I've never been better. I'm off pharmaceuticals and I lost about 60 pounds, with some exercise and diet change. It's been a passion project for me. There is promise; that is why I'm so invested in it personally.”
Dugas takes CBD, too. He's had multiple surgeries, hip reconstruction and spinal injuries, so pain is a constant companion. “I played hockey at Hill Murray and didn't have the greatest end to my career,” he said. “Medical cannabis in Colorado was effective. That got me to pursue it. CBD has helped me recover. I akin it to taking Advil.”
At this point, Dugas is selling his extracted CBD oil on a wholesale basis. Products are under development, however, and this fall he plans to launch a retail line by contracting with hemp growers around the state.
“The wave for hemp is here,” Ames said. “It is a sustainable, regenerative crop that offers much more than just CBD. That is why we are so interested. Hemp been around for thousands of years and it's coming back with a vengeance. Like the shirt says, hemp doesn't stop.”