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Amendment 64 may open the door to the cultivation of industrial hemp

This is the second in a two-part series. The first article, in the December 2012 issue, examined the impacts of the passage of Colorado’s Amendment 64 regarding the recreational use of marijuana.

Colorado’s next field of dreams could be acres of industrial hemp stretching to the horizon, thanks to a lesser-known provision in Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state.

But federal drug policy that criminalizes marijuana — including industrial hemp, which is not psychoactive — at the same level as LSD, “ecstasy” and heroin could hamper the agricultural opportunity or cause nightmarish legal scenarios for growers.

Amendment 64 legalizes recreational marijuana use and possession for adults, and also allows for controlled retail sales. The “sleeping giant” in the constitutional amendment allows for the cultivation of industrial hemp, a non-drug, genetic cousin of marijuana used for fabrics, paper, oil, rope, soaps, furniture and even interior car parts.

“Colorado has the opportunity to become the sole domestic source of industrial hemp,” said Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER, a marijuana and hemp advocacy group that co-authored the amendment. “We have ideal growing conditions and a solid agricultural base.”

Canada began growing hemp 10 years ago, and reaps profits from the U.S., one of its major customers, Tvert said. Hemp products can be sold and distributed in the U.S., but large-scale cultivation has not been allowed.

“The United States is the number-one consumer of industrial-hemp products and also the number-one importer, because we are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t allow it to be cultivated,” Tvert said.

Colorado is testing the waters. But be prepared to hurry up and wait.

Trace of THC

Industrial hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa and is the same plant species as marijuana. However, the distinct chemical make-up of hemp makes it ideal for industrial products, and the variety is genetically different than marijuana because of its trace levels of cannabinoids, the psychoactive ingredient in pot that gives users a high.

Amendment 64 specifically requires that state regulators enact “rational policies for the treatment of all variations of the cannabis plant” and that “industrial hemp should be regulated separately from strains of cannabis with higher Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrations.”

THC is the ingredient in marijuana that causes a euphoric effect for recreational users and relieves pain for medicinal users. The 41 hemp strains of the cannabis plant have no narcotic effect and are grown specifically for their tough fiber, seeds and oils.

“Amendment 64 defines industrial hemp as separate from marijuana,” but still a form of legal cannabis, explained Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp. “It is not a drug.”

Industrial hemp contains almost no THC – less than 1 percent is the standard – while marijuana contains 5 to 20 percent THC. Colorado’s new law defines industrial hemp as having a THC “concentration that does not exceed three-tenths percent on a dry weight basis.”

As the joke goes: The only way a hemp farmer can get a buzz working in his fields is to drink a beer!

On the back burner

Lawmakers have until July 1, 2014, to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp. A 22-member governor’s task force representing the myriad interests and legal issues of A64 began meeting last month. But their first job is passing legislation for the regulation of the recreational use, manufacturing and retail sales of marijuana, which must be completed by July of this year.

“Industrial hemp is on the back burner right now because we have to get all of the retail-licensing laws in place,” explained Eric Bergman, a task-force member and policy supervisor for Colorado Counties, Inc.

“We are on an incredibly tight time frame. The industrial-hemp question will become more of a prominent issue this fall.”

Legal issues are a big hurdle, he said due to the conflict with federal laws.

“Can it be sold across state lines? What are the plant’s requirements? Will counties be able to regulate commercial hemp? So there is a lot of uncertainty and until we get better guidance from the attorney general’s office we are reluctant to give advice about it.” Niche market

Industrial hemp is a versatile, annual plant that grows easily in a wide variety of climates, including the Southwest. It prefers irrigation, but can also be dry-farmed, and it likes lots of sun. Hemp has high nutrient demands and does better in tilled soil that has been fertilized. The crop is grown close together and the stalks can reach up to 15 feet in height.

It has few disease problems. Hemp requires a good amount of water and needs soil that can accommodate deep roots.

“It grows fairly easily but it is a definitely a niche market. There is a lot of hyperbole out there that it is some kind of magic beanstalk,” Murphy warned. “Hemp can help save the world but it can’t do it all by itself.”

Canadian farmers report yields of two to four tons per acre for hemp fiber, and a market price of between $300 and $1,000 per ton. It is estimated that total retail sales for hemp products are in excess of $300 million annually, according to a 2012 study by the Congressional Research Service.

Whether a start-up hemp industry could be successful in the Four Corners is unclear, but some believe it is possible and many of the key pieces are already in place.

McPhee Reservoir provides steady irrigation water, there is an abandoned processing plant in Dove Creek, and the agricultural tradition here has a pioneer spirit for trying something new.

“There is potential there for a really valuable crop; it could be a real money-maker,” suggested Jim Fisher, an area farmer and board member of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “It might be a valuable niche for our area that replaces the faltering sunflower market, but we would need to do some test growing on it to see how it does.”

Researching new crops is the job of agricultural extension offices run in part by Colorado State University. CSU also helps to run and fund the Southwest Colorado Research Center, an agricultural experiment station in Yellow Jacket.

A research scientist at the center, Abdel Berrada, said there hasn’t been any discussion of industrial hemp since the passage of A64. But the idea is worth exploring, although in the past there have been legal issues because the federal government does not permit hemp cultivation and the research station relies on some federal funding.

“I wouldn’t mind doing some testing and research on it. We need some new crops and products. We need some diversification,” Berrada said. “It is the legal aspect that they will have to check with the CSU lawyers, but I think it would be great and I’ll mention it at the next advisory board meeting.”

The meeting is Friday, Feb. 1, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Pleasant View Fire Station. RSVP to attend at 970-562-4255.

Legal quagmire

Dan Fernandez, a retired CSU extension agent for Dolores County and a local farmer, remembers memos from CSU lawyers to not deal with industrial hemp, marijuana questions or related research because it was thought there could be a threat to the agency’s federal funding.

“The limiting factor was always getting it cleared from the federal government, and they don’t recognize it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because it is a potential opportunity and in this area those opportunities don’t come around very often.

“Over the years we did have requests for information about medical-marijuana plants and hemp, but when we approached the university about test experiments they said no. Now that Amendment 64 has passed the issue could be revisited because people are interested in it, but there are a lot of legal hurdles and stigmas attached.”

Marijuana, including hemp, is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the Controlled Substances Act, along with heroin and LSD.

The federal category carries possible criminal penalties for possession, regardless of whether a state has legalized marijuana. But President Obama has assured states that prosecuting medical marijuana and recreational users is not a priority as long as they comply with state rules.

However, large-scale growing operations hiding behind medical-marijuana laws are still being targeted by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Lawmakers, the general public, and many states have rejected the federal government’s interpretation of marijuana as a dangerous drug. As a result 18 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, and now two of those states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana for recreational use and hemp cultivation.

Seven states have passed legislation to grow industrial hemp, but because it is regulated by the Controlled Substances Act, growers are require to obtain a permit from the DEA, which has not been issuing them.

As a simple fix, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in Congress in 2011 by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The bill excluded industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, but it was never voted on. Paul did not seek re-election to Congress because he was running for President, and the bill’s fate is unclear.

“I’m sure that before anyone would consider hemp as a crop they would have to have assurances that there would not be criminal consequences from the federal government where they could get in trouble,” Fisher advised.

The sheer volume of a hemp crop is problematic, agreed Murphy, of Vote Hemp.

“Hemp is best grown outdoors in large amounts, and thousands of plants under the federal act is quite a huge violation,” he said. Alex White Plume, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, knows about uncompromising federal drug laws. Between 2000 and 2002, Plume and his family attempted to grow industrial hemp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, but each crop was raided and destroyed by DEA agents.

According to the Rapid City Journal, the Oglala Sioux Tribe legalized hemp cultivation under their sovereign-nation status and treaty law, but the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against them in 2006. The DEA was granted a court order banning White Plume from planting hemp.

In a Dec. 14 interview with Barbara Walters on ABC, President Obama stated that “it would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”

Obama said he does not support widespread legalization of marijuana “at this point,” noting that Congress has not changed federal marijuana laws. But the President added that more discussion is needed.

“How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?” Obama asked Walters.

No mention was made of industrial hemp. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been directed to review the contradictory laws of federal and state marijuana laws.

The new sunflower?

Despite the legal limbo, there is still interest in industrial hemp, and Southwest Colorado might already be in a good position to take advantage of legalization.

In 2007, Dolores County farmers embarked on a bio-diesel project using sunflowers. A processing plant was built in Dove Creek to extract seeds and oil from locally grown sunflower. Although the crop did well, the processing plant ran into financial problems and closed in 2010. It is now in bankruptcy and held by Community Banks of the Rockies.

The vacant processing facility may work for processing hemp oil or seeds.

“It could be a possibility. I would imagine that with some slight retooling it could be developed for something like hemp,” Fernandez said. “It has grinding operations and crushers. The plant is pretty versatile and is designed to crush a lot of different types of seeds. I think it is something to look into.”

Hemp-farming requires a lot of research before plants go in the ground. What variety should be planted, where will it be sold and the price all need to be worked out beforehand. “We advise hemp farmers in Canada to only grow under contract,” said Murphy. “It is still a niche crop and you want to make sure you are growing the right variety that is in demand, whether for oil or seed or mercantiles.”

New crops require a lot of testing to be successful, which can be costly, Fernandez said, and farmers do not have extra revenues to take it on.

“With sunflower, we learned that just because one variety grows well elsewhere in the state it does not mean it will grow well here,” he said. “So there needs to be a lot of development, a lot of research and funding. I’d say it would take a three-to-five-year program to determine if hemp could be a viable, profitable venture here.”

Kim Dillivan, Dolores County’s extension agent, said he is researching hemp because local growers have shown interest in the crop.

Paul Evans, general manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch, said growing hemp would have to be decided by the tribal council, and its legal uncertainties at the federal level are a concern.

“Hemp for industrial uses is worth researching to see if it is possible here, but its legality would need to be resolved at the federal end. I wouldn’t want to push the limits.”

Nick Colglazier, director of public policy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said his agency does not support legalizing marijuana but it does advocate bringing back industrial hemp.

“We see it as another alternative option, a free-market issue, but there are no rules and regulations for it yet, so at this point we don’t have any recommendations about it,” he said.

He added that the low THC levels of hemp crops would have to be strictly enforced to avoid situations where marijuana, with its much higher THC content, was being grown clandestinely within a hemp field.

“Hemp is a good notion,” Colglazier said, “but until the fog over rules and regulations is lifted, it is difficult to move forward, but there are always those pioneers that hop on board and adopt new things just to give them a try.”

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