CHICAGO -- U.S. farmers could be cultivating a lucrative cash crop for oils, clothes, rope and paper, if only the U.S. government would legalize it, according to a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory.
And if other Americans want to smoke what's left, that's fine with Mike Rosing too.
The crop, hemp, the plant from which marijuana is derived, has been outlawed in the United States since 1937. But in these times of recession talk, Mr. Rosing said with a smile, no source of income should be overlooked.
"This [hemp] is definitely a cash crop. It could mean billions of dollars for U.S. farmers," said Mr. Rosing, who is president of the Illinois Marijuana Initiative.
"It's already the nation's leading illegal cash crop," he said.
An estimated 21 million Americans smoked marijuana last year. Growing marijuana is a felony and using it, a misdemeanor.
IMI, about 100 members strong, is pushing a slightly different approach to the question of whether to legalize the drug.
While other groups have concentrated on showcasing the plant's medicinal properties and maintaining that making it illegal infringes on people's rights, IMI has kept its approach more down to earth.
According to Mr. Rosing, 36, who said he first sampled marijuana while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the early 1970s, the plant has a multitude of uses. Once processed, it can be used to manufacture a large variety of products.
"Some of the stuff we have now can be made better with hemp," Mr. Rosing said.
"The hemp makes better paper. Besides lasting longer, you don't have to cut down any trees," he said.
Hemp can grow quickly because it has one of the most efficient photosynthesis properties of any plant, Mr. Rosing said. And it can be grown in most climates and could bloom across the nation within five years, he predicted.
Donald Fiddler, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a longtime advocate of the drug's legalization, called the approach "unique" and said it may make headway in the effort to legalize the drug.
Not everyone sees it that way.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy is not amused by Mr. Rosing's ideas. Neither is the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most directly affected by Mr. Rosing's proposals, has one word for them: "Poppycock."
Critics of the drug contend it causes harm to the brain and the body's various systems, is addictive and would do little to cure the nation's narcotic ills.
"Legalizing marijuana would further complicate our effort against illicit drugs," said Dr. Herbert Kleber, deputy director for demand reduction at the Office of National Control Drug Policy. "In addition, we are not in favor of legalizing anything that causes damage to people."
Indeed, opposition to legalization is strong. In recent years, Congress has stiffened the penalties and provided for mandatory sentencing of convicted drug traffickers.