In Colorado, our legal industry has produced a certain intellectual elitism when it comes to good weed. In other words, the state is crawling with cannabis snobs and marijuana know-it-alls.
Hemp, however, is another issue. Though marijuana’s cannabis cousin also enjoys protections in our state, most of us don’t know quite as much about this miracle plant, beyond the fact that hemp hearts are delicious and CBD from hemp is widespread. So, before you dig into the rest of this issue, here’s a quick explainer, brought to you through the expertise of Duane Sinning, assistant director of the Division of Plant Industry for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
What is hemp? Can it get you high?
Like marijuana, hemp comes from the cannabis plant. But unlike marijuana, hemp isn’t going to get you high. According to the feds, hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent Delta-9-THC concentration. While CBD — a compound thought to have significant medical benefits — can be (and is) extracted from both plants, the two plants otherwise have very different uses.
Wait, so it’s legal to grow hemp now, right?
Yes. Sort of. It depends. Let us explain. Until recently, the federal government lumped hemp in with the other cannabis plant — marijuana — meaning it was illegal to grow in the States. That meant that to get hemp for your green building materials, or hemp hearts for your smoothie, an importer had to be involved. (Europe, meanwhile, has long enjoyed a legal hemp industry.)
The 2014 Farm Bill allowed hemp to be cultivated by universities and state departments of agriculture for certain uses. But that didn’t just make it OK to start growing hemp. “The law has to be set up in the state,” Sinning notes, “and [the state’s] Department of Ag has to set up the rules according to the Farm Bill.”
So when the federal door opened, states started passing needed legislation to allow for hemp grows in their states. A majority of states, including Colorado, have now passed laws regarding industrial hemp, and a majority now allow for the cultivation of hemp for commercial, research or pilot purposes. In Colorado, naturally, the story is a little more complicated.
Back in 2012, Sinning explains, Coloradans passed Amendment 64. The law is most famous for legalizing recreational marijuana in Colorado, but it also allowed for growing hemp. Responding to the new law, our state Legislature enacted a law that created two licenses for hemp growers: one for research and development (think universities) and one for commercial growers. Sinning points out that there’s actually some overlap in those two definitions, since the commercial sector often does the bulk of the research and development of a product. (It was Volvo, not universities, for instance, that popularized the modern seatbelt.)
“Government has never done a good job of creating in industry,” Sinning, whose background is in private industry, opines. He adds that with hemp, as with any other industry, government does the most good by leveling the playing field and enforcing the rules. Anyway, in a moment of serendipity, Colorado’s new licenses went into effect shortly after the Farm Bill passed.
And that put Colorado ahead of the curve, along with Kentucky, on actually allowing folks to start growing hemp in the state. Now, it should be noted that this isn’t a free-for-all. The Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp Program carefully oversees the cultivation of industrial hemp in the state and administers a seed program.
What’s more, the rules aren’t the same in every state, and some states don’t allow hemp cultivation at all. (Sinning says about 15 to 20 states don’t allow it, though state laws are changing fast.) Recently, the Cannabist reports, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told hemp advocates in his home state of Kentucky that he plans to introduce legislation to make hemp federally legal as an agricultural commodity.
Are we growing a lot of hemp in Colorado?
That really depends on how you define “a lot.” Sinning says close to 12,000 acres of hemp were planted in 2017 in Colorado. Notably, since the passage of the Farm Bill, Colorado has led the states in hemp crops every year, and not just by a tiny margin.
Last year, for instance, Sinning says that the states vying for the second-largest hemp harvest (like Kentucky and North Dakota) had around 3,000 acres planted, though Kentucky appears to be catching up. (Sinning, by the way, is quick to point out that it’s not a competition, and the important thing is that a state is meeting its needs.)
It’s not really understood why Colorado has so much more hemp growing than other states. It could be due to our jump on legislation, but Kentucky also had that advantage. One theory that we floated with Sinning was the fact that Colorado has seen so much drought and hemp is a hardy crop. Sinning notes that Colorado’s experience shows that hemp uses about half the water corn does — and later in its life cycle may only need watering once every three weeks.
Hemp grown in Colorado has, thus far, also needed few herbicides and pesticides (and few are legal for the crop in Colorado anyway). But Sinning notes that early care is critical with hemp. It needs a lot of water to start with, and hemp must outpace weeds, allowing the plant to create a canopy that deprives weeds of light, killing them naturally. If under-watered early on, or if weeds outpace hemp’s growth, it can spell disaster for a crop.
Luckily, Sinning says, Colorado tends to get most of its water in spring and early summer, making our climate a nice match for the crop. So perhaps that’s part of the draw. One trend that Sinning has seen is that, in the years since legalization, hemp crops have gone from boutique to traditional ag. In the first couple years, he says, you saw smaller crops, mostly near universities, in Boulder, Larimer and, to a lesser degree, Delta County.
He says he doesn’t remember a single plot in ag-centric Weld County in the first year, but in 2017 there were around 65 crops in Weld, meaning that hemp is getting treated more and more like any other crop. (It helps that counties cannot opt out of allowing hemp grows.) With that growth in the hemp industry, Sinning says law enforcement usually gets some calls from folks that think a marijuana plantation has popped up next door. “Too many people get trapped into thinking it’s a drug, it’s like marijuana,” he says. “No, it’s like corn.”
What’s all that hemp used for?
Like, everything. The U.S. Congressional Research Committee estimates there are 25,000 uses for hemp. Sinning notes, “There isn’t another crop that has as many uses as it appears that hemp has.”
Asked what application he finds most interesting — biofuel, batteries, food, cloth, CBD, building material, etc. — Sinning says it’s impossible to choose. “As soon as I pick out something there’s 25,001 [uses].”
Sinning says that, as in other hemp-growing states, Colorado hemp has largely been used to harvest CBD for health products. CBD, he notes, has a relatively low cost to produce and sells for a good price. But CBD prices are dropping, while grain prices (think hemp hearts and other hemp-based foods) are growing. So, there’s a good chance our market will diversify over time.
One thing that hemp can’t be used for right now is animal feed. If the law changes, we could see a lot of healthy, hemp-fed cows in our future. But Sinning notes that research has to be done before a plant can be approved for such a purpose.
As for the much touted biofuel, Sinning says that it comes down to basic economics: When oil is cheap, hemp-based biofuel (or any fuel alternative) is a hard sell. But he suspects that more R&D could go into the promising application if oil prices spike.
Where does the industry go from here?
There’s a lot of signs that this is still a young industry (at least in the U.S.). Aside from the lack of diversification in the uses for our hemp so far, Sinning notes that you also don’t see a lot of standardization yet. So, one bag of hemp hearts might be white, while another is yellow, while another is a sort of brownish gray, for instance. Standardization comes with breeding, and that takes time.
And, perhaps as another sign of how young the industry is, there are many different industry groups for hemp, rather than just one or a few that speak for the industry. Some are quite regional, others aim to represent the industry nationally, and they don’t always agree on everything. (This reporter, for one, became confused while sorting through them.) Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that hemp’s cannabis cousin was in the same boat in Colorado. If the marijuana industry is any indicator, the hemp industry should become stronger and better defined in the coming years.