Hemp is gaining legitimacy in Colorado and federally, despite resistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Industrial hemp is a genetic cousin of marijuana, but without the psychoactive ingredients. It is grown commercially for a many products, including textiles, fuel, food, paper, construction materials and medicines.
Colorado voted to legalize hemp along with marijuana in 2012 under Amendment 64. The state has since passed additional laws in support of hemp, including one bill that was signed in Cortez last year.
Permits to grow hemp are issued by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and are increasing. So far, 12 permits have been issued in Montezuma County, 12 in La Plata County, and three in San Miguel County.
Statewide, 850 permits to grow hemp have been issued, with a total of 22,000 acres in production, plus 3.8 million square-feet of indoors. That’s up from 131 permits issued in 2014 to grow 1,811 acres, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
Crops are tested to ensure they do not exceed 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The psychoactive THC ingredient in marijuana ranges from 5-25 percent concentration.
A vexing problem for hemp growers is that the plant is considered illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp and marijuana are vastly different, but they both fall under the cannabis family, which is prohibited as a banned Schedule 1 drug, the most dangerous category, which also includes heroin, ecstasy and LSD.
Cannabinoids (CBD) are promising medicines derived from hemp flowers, and have high market value for farmers and producers. CBD is especially effective at treating and reducing seizures without mental impairment.
But the DEA has labeled the CBD hemp extract as a prohibited drug under federal law because it is derived from a cannabis plant. The hemp industry launched a legal challenge in 2016, and a federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of the DEA’s assertion that CBD is an illegal drug federally.
According to Hemp Industry Daily, the ruling means that hemp producers can only sell CBD in states where it is allowed, limiting the product’s market. The appeal court upheld the 2014 Farm Bill provision allowing hemp to be grown for research purposes in states that have legalized it.
But the court of appeals’ decision supporting the DEA will become moot if Congress passes the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. The bill would remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and allow it to be regulated in all 50 states as an agricultural commodity.
The bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.), is also co-sponsored by Colorado’s U.S. senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner.
The legislation would give states the opportunity to become the primary regulators of hemp, allow hemp researchers to apply for competitive federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ensure growers in the West can access water, and make hemp farmers eligible to apply for crop insurance.
“Removing industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act is a commonsense move which would create jobs and get the government out of the way of Colorado’s farmers and agricultural industry,” Gardner said. “Hemp has the potential to be a major boon to Colorado agriculture, giving farmers another profitable option for their fields.”
Colorado has recently passed additional hemp legislation to further encourage growers and in support of the proposed Hemp Farming Act, said Colorado Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.
“I think the problem of hemp being listed as illegal federally is about to go away,” he said Wednesday. “The only road block has been the federal status of being a Schedule 1 substance.”
The Colorado Legislature passed a bill this session specifically designating industrial hemp as an agricultural product within the Commodity Handler and Farm Products Act.
In May 2017, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill at Cortez City Hall that affirmed hemp growers’ right to use their water rights, including those from federal facilities such as McPhee Reservoir, to grow their crop.
The bill was in response to an earlier Bureau of Reclamation policy that warned hemp growers against using water stored in federal projects, because the plant was federally illegal.
The Southwest Colorado Research Center in Yellow Jacket plans to continue growing experimental plots of hemp under the Farm Bill provision, said manager Katie Russell.
“There has been considerable interest locally in hemp,” she said. “We want to hone in on the best management and varieties for this area’s unique climate and elevation.”