For hemp advocates, green could mean gold

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Beth Wittke (left) and Sharon Stewart, owner of the Spruce Tree Espresso House, are members of Hemp Talks, a group formed in Cortez to discuss the benefits of hemp as well as hurdles to its cultivation. Photo by Paul Ferrell

Beth Wittke (left) and Sharon Stewart, owner of the Spruce Tree Espresso House, are members of Hemp Talks, a group formed in Cortez to discuss the benefits of hemp as well as hurdles to its cultivation. Photo by Paul Ferrell

Hemp won’t get you high – but some people think it could make you rich.

Colorado gained national attention in November 2012 when voters passed Amendment 64 that legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. But while the national spotlight shone brightly on legal pot, the fact that its non-intoxicating cousin had also been legalized remained in the shadows.

Still, Sharon Stewart of Cortez became intrigued by the issue and soon began investigating the subject. In October 2013, she started a group that came to be known as “Hemp Talks Western Slope.”

“I started reaching out to different forums and different groups on the Front Range who were talking about hemp,” said Stewart. “I’d been having the conversation six to eight months prior to us ever even having our hemp talks, trying to find someone who wants to come over here and talk, trying to find someone who knew anything about legislation.”

She found James MacVaney, a lobbyist at the time. “He was a great source of information for me and that’s why I invited him to come here,” Stewart said. “That’s what started this whole group, Hemp Talks.”

MacVaney lobbied for the passage of Amendment 64, but now heads Industrial Hemp in Colorado, LLC. The tag line on his business card reads, “Growing new jobs in rural Colorado.”

“I spent the last two years promoting industrial hemp,” MacVaney said. “I did a lot of rural get-out-the-vote for Amendment 64.”

In his rural ramblings he sometimes encountered opposition because of hemp’s link to its intoxicating cousin. MacVaney repeatedly explained that Colorado law mandates that industrial hemp contain only 0.3 percent THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for its mind-altering effects, so hemp can’t get you any higher than, say, banana peels.

10,000 years

Today the American market for industrial hemp fiber and seed products is $400 million annually, but none of that money goes to U.S. farmers or processors. Hemp is imported as sterilized seed and as finished products, such as cloth and paper. China is the world’s leading producer; but many other countries, including Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Australia, France, and Great Britain, produce hemp products and export them to the U.S. MacVaney and many others believe now is the time for Colorado to also reap the financial benefits of industrial hemp.

Hemp has a 10,000-year history of use in myriad products – from textiles to fuel, food, animal feed, paper, rope and building material. Some of the earliest uses of hemp were to make rope and nets; Columbus sailed to the New World with hemp rigging.

James MacVaney, head of Industrial Hemp in Colorado, LLC, points to the “hurd” of a hemp plant. The hurd is used to make “hempcrete” and other construction materials. Photo by Paul Ferrell

James MacVaney, head of Industrial Hemp in Colorado, LLC, points to the “hurd” of a hemp plant. The hurd is used to make “hempcrete” and other construction materials. Photo by Paul Ferrell

Paper was made from hemp in China 1,900 years ago. The Gutenberg Bible was printed on hemp-based paper in the 15th century. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that produced hemp paper.

George Washington was a hemp farmer who urged others to grow the plant. Thomas Jefferson, also a hemp farmer, wrote the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence on paper made from hemp.

Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine in 1892, intended his engine to run on a variety of fuels, particularly vegetable and seed oils. Filtered hemp oil can be used in diesel engines and hemp can be used for plasticized or composite materials. Henry Ford developed a car fueled by hemp-ethanol with a body molded from hemp-resin. Ford said his car was a vehicle that he “grew from the soil.” According to a 1930s Popular Mechanics article more than 25,000 different products could be made from hemp oil, seed and fiber.

Going dim

But hemp’s bright future was dimmed by the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The law levied a tax on commercial dealings in cannabis, hemp, or marijuana. Conspiracy theories abound regarding the inclusion of hemp in the 1937 law, with the main culprits alleged to be Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst and the DuPont family. Some scholars maintain that the law was intended to destroy the hemp industry in America.

Mellon, secretary of the Treasury at the time and the richest man in the U.S., had invested heavily in DuPont’s new synthetic fiber, nylon. With hemp fiber eliminated from the market, nylon would flourish. Newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst had extensive holdings in timber, so some believe he feared the development of new technology that would make hemp paper cheaper to produce.

Whether or not the conspiracy theories are true, the 1937 law was devastating for hemp production – until the outbreak of World War II. With the capture of the Philippines by Japan at the start of the war, the U.S. supply of Manila hemp – an ersatz hemp used for cordage and textile – was cut off. Anti-hemp laws were set aside and American production was revived. Hemp was cultivated extensively in the Midwest and Kentucky for canvas, rope and uniforms. Hemp farming was promoted in a 1942 film called “Hemp for Victory.”

But after the Allies’ victory in 1945, U.S. hemp production dropped from its peak of more than 150 million pounds in 1943 to zero by the late 1950s.

In 1969 the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was struck down by the Supreme Court in the case of Leary v. United States. (LSD guru Timothy Leary had fought the law to overturn a marijuana possession charge.) But the 1937 law was effectively reinstated with the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, and hemp, always lumped in with marijuana, went along for the ride. Marijuana was made a Schedule One drug, the most restrictive category.

But the drug war also produced a counter-effect, with the decoupling of marijuana from other drugs. Marijuana was decriminalized in 11 states between 1973 and 1977. In 1996 California became the first state to allow the medical use of marijuana. Today 20 states and the District of Columbia have public medical-marijuana programs.

Advocate Caren Kershner, who spoke at last month’s Four States Ag Expo, believes hemp farmers should work to keep their profits in-state. Photo by Paul Ferrell

Advocate Caren Kershner, who spoke at last month’s Four States Ag Expo, believes hemp farmers should work to keep their profits in-state. Photo by Paul Ferrell

When Colorado legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes, industrial hemp became legal as well. The Colorado Department of Agriculture created industrial- hemp regulations that became effective on Dec. 30, 2013. Hemp farmers begin registering with the department’s industrial hemp program on March 1 of this year.

Several other states reportedly plan to follow suit. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 10 states have laws promoting the growth and marketing of industrial hemp. As of Feb. 26, legislatures in 28 states have bills concerning industrial hemp.

Not long after the passage of Amendment 64, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would allow the new marijuana laws in Colorado to go into effect. Last August the Justice Department issued a memo stating it would not interfere with state regulation of cannabis.

In February, the 2014 Farm Bill was passed. Among its many provisions, it permits agriculture departments and universities in 10 states to cultivate industrial hemp. Previously, permission from the federal DEA was required.

Many look forward to hemp becoming widespread. It can be used for construction; hemp building materials are non-toxic, mildew- resistant, pest-free and flame-resistant. Hempcrete, a mixture of ground stalks, lime and water, can sometimes be a substitute for concrete. Wall panels made from hemp can go into homes along with hemp insulation, eliminating the health problems associated with asbestos, arsenic and formaldehyde.

Hemp can provide food for humans as well as for livestock. It is second only to soy as a plant-based source of protein, and is more digestible than soy. It’s a good source of B-vitamins and Omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids and is high in fiber.

Because the plant can absorb toxins, it is currently being used to clean up the area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Russia through phytoremediation, taking radioactive cesium and heavy metals from the soil.

In Colorado, state law created a hemp-remediation pilot program “to determine how soils and water may be made more pristine and healthy by phytoremediation, removal of contaminants, and rejuvenation through the growth of industrial hemp.”

Many questions

All these developments prompted Stewart to found the “Hemp Talks” group last October. The first meeting was held at Stewart’s business in Cortez, the Spruce Tree Espresso House. By March the group had grown too large for the backroom of her café, so meetings moved a few blocks down Main Street to the Cortez Welcome Center. Meetings are held on the first Sunday of each month at 10 a.m.

“Right now we have more questions than we have answers,” said Stewart. “Nobody has been growing hemp for so long, there’s no one in this area that’s an expert on it. So we as a group are trying to make ourselves as knowledgeable as possible so that we can be a resource. I would like to see this group become an educational and outreach tool, a resource for farmers to come to and say, ‘Hey, I want to grow hemp. How do I wade through all this paperwork and how do I figure this out?’”

The group established a steering committee, an education and outreach committee, and a legislative committee. Beth Wittke, chair of the legislative committee, sees much of her mission as that of a fact-checker. “I worry that people are getting the wrong information,” said Wittke.

Several important legislative issues remain murky. Federal and state laws do not quite align, and a statement from the Attorney General or a memo from the Justice Department does not carry the authority of established law.

Wittke is quick to point out that she is not a lawyer and she urges caution for anyone going into hemp farming. “When I hear people say that the Justice Department said that they would honor state laws – I’ve seen that before. If things get what they perceive as too mainstream or too out of hand, they do tend to crack down.

“I don’t know that they would do that with industrial hemp because I do think they are sincere in wanting to ease up on the drug war, incrementally, but that’s just a sense I have.”

Colorado law says hemp can either be grown commercially or for research and development. All hemp farming for the 2014 season must be registered with the Colorado Department of Agriculture between March 1 and May 1. All registrants are subject to sampling of their crops to ensure that none of the hemp exceeds 0.3 percent THC content. Department of Agriculture inspectors must be provided with full access to all plants, seeds, land, buildings and documents connected with the hemp-growing business. All hemp shipped out of state must be processed in Colorado and documentation of in-state processing must be provided as part of the registration process.

Wittke believes that most farmers will opt for the research-and-development plots in order to comply with federal laws.

She said her understanding is that, to get a permit, one needs a letter from the university system, such as the Colorado State Experimental Farm in Pleasant View, or the Department of Agriculture.

“Once you get a letter from them saying you are a research-and-development plot, I believe you are covered under the federal farm bill,” she said, adding that this is information gleaned from the Rocky Mountain Hemp Association, not a legal opinion.


A Feb. 25 media release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture outlined five issues yet to be resolved: pesticides, federal farm programs, banking, hemp processing and seed procurement.

Currently there are no federally approved pesticides registered for use on cannabis. Federal farm programs such as crop insurance and farm loans may be in jeopardy if hemp is planted. Some banks may be reluctant to handle hemp money for fear of being federally prosecuted. Processing hemp could be a problem because it is unknown how many processing facilities will be available in Colorado at harvest time.

Some members of Hemp Talks say some of those issues can be resolved in the years ahead. They say processing facilities will be worked out as farmers switch from research and development to full commercial production.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is drawing up a very limited list of pesticides that could be used on hemp without violating federal or state regulations. But MacVaney said that pesticides are generally not needed for hemp. “The Canadian farmers have zero inputs of pesticides,” he said.

The Treasury and Justice departments have issued guidelines for banks involved with the cannabis businesses, so banking is no longer a problem with medical and recreational marijuana. The status of federal farm programs with regard to hemp is something new, so the department recommends contacting a lawyer for advice.

Obtaining industrial-hemp seeds with less than 0.3 percent THC is a concern. The state ag department’s February media release states: “Importation of viable industrial hemp seed across State lines and Country boundaries is illegal under the Federal Controlled Substances Act.”

But in January, Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner for the state agriculture department, seemed to give a wink and a nod to hemp farmers when he told Colorado’s NewsChannel 5, “Because of federal law, importing seed into Colorado is not a viable, legal option. So growers will have to obtain their seed from within the state. We will not require that registrants identify the source of their seed as part of the registration process.”

Despite the unresolved issues, at least some industrial hemp will be grown in the 2014 season. Wittke said she currently knows of six research-and-development plots in the Boulder area. With the experience gained during the initial growing season, a knowledge base for hemp farmers will develop and Hemp Talks hopes to disseminate that knowledge.

Seed procurement and seed quality are important issues for the group. All members recently promised not to plant genetically modified hemp in the area. They favor non-GMO, non-patented seeds that are adapted to the area’s growing conditions.

Stewart thinks the group may evolve into a seed bank for local farmers but where the original seeds will come from remains unclear. She said, “There are people saying they are going to bring in seed but aren’t saying where they are getting it from – they’re very hush-hush about it.”

MacVaney is also uncertain where the seeds might come from, but hopes that the legislature might pass a bill creating a seed-importation program.

MacVaney has high hopes for this year’s hemp crop. “My goal right now is to find farmers throughout Colorado who want to do these research-and-development plots this year so we could actually establish some empirical data to show that this cultivar might grow good in this region. Once we have that data we could actually start trying to attract these processing centers into the state.”

Unprocessed hemp cannot be shipped out of state and processing centers require a large investment. At a seminar at the Four States Ag Expo in Cortez last month, advocate Caren Kershner urged prospective hemp farmers and processors to keep their profits in Colorado.

She said, “The East Coast people are jumping on this – they want to get in here and start their businesses. I want to see Colorado people do it. Coloradans are the ones that worked for change – it wasn’t those people in New York. I don’t think that they should get first dibs on our new industry. We’ve got so much opportunity here and I really want to see it grow.”

MacVaney believes hemp oil might be the best product for western Colorado. He suggested it could be processed at the Dove Creek biodiesel plant that shut down in 2010. The plant processed sunflower seeds to make oil for fuel. MacVaney pointed out that the highly nutritious hemp oil is more valuable for human consumption than for being burned in diesel engines. Currently there are no plans to re-open the Dove Creek plant but many hope it can be re-tooled to process hemp.

‘Full-spectrum cannabis’

Lu Nettleton of the Colorado Plateau Growers Association, a member of Hemp Talks, hopes to see the wealth generated by hemp remain in the area. “Build an industry and add value at each step to full retail and that’s where your jobs are and those are all reasonable paying jobs and they’re long-term jobs,” he said. “What I want is Osprey to use that plant as a source of material to bring jobs back to Cortez making their line of camping gear, which is all done in Bangladesh and Vietnam now.”

Nettleton stands out among Hemp Talks members in that he favors a change in law to permit growing what he calls “full-spectrum cannabis.” He wants to grow plants with a THC content around 15 percent rather than the 0.3 percent. He believes Southwest Colorado and much of the Colorado Plateau is well-suited for growing high-THC cannabis for the pharmaceutical industry and other uses.

“THC is a multi-use product; it’s not just for getting high,” he said. “Why in the world wouldn’t you grow a plant that has high-quality THC? Then, when you do the extraction process, you’re going to get three products. You’re going to get the very finest and lightest oils for cosmetics, you’re going to get the range that is good for medicine, and then you’re going to get what’s left for diesel engines.

“It doesn’t make economic sense the way the law is written because it limits the productivity of the cannabis plant, as well as the physical plants that we will use for extraction.”

Stewart believes it might take three or four years before the hemp industry really takes off. She hopes it will help the economy, environment and quality of life for Coloradans.

“The hemp industry is one of the greatest things the United States ever had,” she said.

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