Farmers Lose Out As Thieves Mistake Hemp for Marijuana

Demarkius Medley stands in front of where his hemp crop grew last year

For many farmers, 2019 was the first year of growing hemp, since it became legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. In addition to the normal challenges of farming, hemp growers have had to deal with a different kind of problem: theft.

At his small, boutique-style farm in Galesburg, Illinois, Demarkius Medley grows mostly leafy greens and lettuces using aquaponics, a system where fish provide the nutrients to grow food. But, this year for the first time, he grew hemp

As the crop got closer to harvesting, Medley and his farmhand started to notice some of the hemp plants were disappearing.

“We thought it was a deer at first, because they were just taking tops,” said Medley.

They were losing so much crop that they finally decided to install a camera. The footage showed people — not deer — sneaking onto the property in the middle of the night and stealing the plants.

Medley’s best guess is that the thieves thought they were stealing marijuana, hemp’s cousin plant.

Demarkius Medley’s aquaponics greenhouse, where he grows leafy greens, lettuces, and some hemp Dana Cronin / Illinois Newsroom

“Even if it is hemp, whoever took it probably thought that they could get high or make some money off it,” he said.

Medley had to call an emergency harvest. In the course of 24 hours, he and a team of volunteers did what normally would’ve taken days.

“It was just kind of like, we got to get it done, or somebody’s going to steal it,” he said. “Because they were definitely going to come back to get some more.”

According to the police report, they lost about $25,000 worth of hemp.

“There’s not a whole lot we can do about it”

Illinois isn’t the only state facing this problem. Similar cases have popped up all over the country, from New York to Indiana to Washington

In Colorado last year, one farmer had $2 million worth of hemp stolen.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture didn’t track how much hemp was stolen in the state this year.

But Jeff Cox, the department’s bureau chief of medicinal plants, said they have received a lot of calls about it.

“It’s unfortunate. I hate to see it. And the saddest part, or the most ridiculous part maybe, is that people are typically stealing this because they think it’s marijuana, and it’s not,” he said.

He said he’s working on a few different strategies to tackle hemp theft, including improving signage to let the public know it’s industrial hemp growing, not marijuana. 

Help from local law enforcement

According to Cox, the Illinois Department of Agriculture is working on getting local law enforcement involved.

In Demarkius Medley’s case, that would’ve been Galesburg’s Chief of Police Russ Idle.

Galesburg Chief of Police Russ Idle at his desk Dana Cronin / Illinois Newsroom

 

Medley’s case is technically still open, but Idle said after investigating a few suspects, they weren’t able to find any concrete evidence.  

“At this point our best guess is, most likely since the product really is unusable as a drug, once they figured it out, they just got rid of it,” he said.

According to Idle, this is the first case of hemp theft the Galesburg Police Department has had to deal with. 

Regardless, he said they’re beginning to ramp up patrols.

“We’re aware of where the different hemp farms are, and we’ll be wanting to keep an eye on them and be on the lookout for people that don’t look like they belong,” he said.

He said that’s not something they do for most local farms.

Demarkius Medley plans to install a security camera on this pole to prevent theft in the future Dana Cronin / Illinois Newsroom

“I think that this particular crop has a potential for theft or damage that maybe others don’t.”

Medley said he appreciates these efforts but that it should be up to hemp farmers to protect their own crop.

“You’re going to have to secure it. And you’re gonna probably have to accept loss if you don’t,” he said.

Medley does plan to grow hemp again this year but with added security, including motion-sensor lights, fences, and cameras.

And if that’s not enough, he said his two rottweilers should do the trick.

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Dana Cronin

Dana Cronin

Dana Cronin covers Agriculture for the Illinois Newsroom. She started at Illinois Public Media in December of 2019 after serving as a producer for NPR’s Weekend Edition; and reported for KQED in San Francisco and KRCC in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Email: dcronin@illinois.edu Twitter: @DanaHCronin