EVANSVILLE, Ind., Dec. 19 (UPI) -- Across the country, newly legal hemp plants are being mistaken for their close cousin, marijuana. And they're attracting thieves.
"They thought they stumbled upon the field of dreams," said Ashleigh Baldwin, a hemp grower in Coopersburg, Pa., who experienced two people stealing hemp from her fields last summer. "It really does look, smell and feel a lot like marijuana."
While a hemp is visually almost indistinguishable from a marijuana plant, the difference is that it doesn't contain enough THC to even generate a buzz.
"If you take this stuff and smoke it and you're trying to get high, it's not going to help you," said Iris Rogers, owner of Homestead Hemp, a hemp farm in Salem, N.Y., who also experienced thefts.
In Baldwin's case, both thieves were caught by local law enforcement. They were young, and she decided not to press charges.
"It's pretty funny," she said. "I can see the humorous side of it."
But not all farmers are laughing.
For years, hemp was outlawed in the United States because it so closely resembles marijuana. That all changed when Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the list of banned narcotics and established a program for farmers to grow it.
This past spring, farmers all over the United States flocked to the new crop and planted more than 500,000 acres, according to Vote Hemp, a nonprofit hemp advocacy organization. Many invested their entire life's savings, hoping to get a foothold in the nascent market.
While the government recognized hemp plants as different from marijuana, thieves often are unable to see or smell that difference when it's growing.
From California to New York state, they have pilfered new fields of the stuff -- in some cases stealing truckloads of what they believed to be a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
"It is proving to be dangerous, too, because thieves are not only looking to steal what they believe to be drugs, but they often arm themselves with guns," Tony Botti, a spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office in California, said in a statement.
A few miles east of Fresno, a hemp farmer came upon one such thief Sept. 27, according to the sheriff's office. The thief pointed a gun at the farmer before driving away. Days later, the same farmer found 15 to 20 people stealing hemp plants, the agency said. At least one had a gun.
Elsewhere in the country, new hemp growers have had similar experiences.
"I guess I just assumed that people would realize that 400 acres of plants that were totally visible from the road wouldn't be marijuana," said Will Weaver, a hemp grower in rural northern Indiana. "I was wrong."
Weaver said he and his partner caught 26 people attempting to steal their plants. They did not catch many more. The thefts became so frequent as the plants matured that he spent most nights patrolling his fields.
"I basically slept in my truck all summer," he said.
Weaver said he and his fellow farmers chased thieves -- guns drawn -- on foot and by car in the dead of night through fields and down dirt roads.
"One time, three of us pinned a car in and jumped out of our trucks, guns drawn," he said. The would-be thief, still in his car, rammed one of the trucks in an attempt to get away.
"People got pretty crazy," he said. "But what are you going to do, let them take your livelihood? I've got $1.2 million invested in this. I've got to protect it any way I can."
Weaver lost some 250 plants this season, which equates to between $25,000 and $75,000 in revenue, he said.
Next year, Weaver plans to hide his hemp plants far from any public road and plant several rows of corn around the perimeter of all his hemp fields. He hopes this will eliminate most of the problems.
But not all farmers are capable of hiding their fields. And hemp industry experts predict the number of acres of hemp will continue to grow as the industry expands in the coming years.
"I'm trying to combat it by education," said Rogers, of Homestead Hemp, a hemp farm.
"If you try and sell it as marijuana, that could get dangerous," she said. "People are going to get angry when they realize it's not marijuana. I don't recommend doing that."
Rogers said she expected some people to mistake her hemp field for marijuana.
"We put up signs" reading "Not marijuana; Under surveillance; No THC; Won't get you high," she said. The outcome: "It didn't really matter."
Rogers said she noticed clippings missing from plants during most of the summer before police caught two men attempting to get away with a larger haul. They were charged and ordered to pay restitution, she said.
But, she said, she'd feel a lot better if the thefts stopped altogether.
"I hope we're able to educate people," Rogers said. "This isn't what you think it is."