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Hemp proponents form co-op, face numerous challenges

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

A relatively small but growing group of advocates is working to make Colorado one of the first states in the union to grow and use hemp, the non-intoxicating cousin of the marijuana plant, since it essentially disappeared from U.S. agriculture in 1957.

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Specifically, the group is hoping to establish a Valley Hemp Co-op (www.valleyhempco-op.org) of farmers and other interested parties, which could work with an already established organization, the Colorado Hemp Cooperative, or other such organizations, to make hemp cultivation and manufacturing a reality in the state.

It was in 1957, according to a “Hemp History Timeline” passed out during a June 12 organizing meeting of the co-op, when the federal government formally outlawed hemp production “due to government confusion over hemp and drug varieties of the plant.”

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That confusion, interestingly, remains a key reason that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refuses to reclassify hemp as an agricultural product, and take it off the agency’s Controlled Substances Act Schedule I list of highly addictive and dangerous drugs (where it is listed along with marijuana.)

A recent example of the DEA’s continuing determination to keep hemp illegal was the seizure earlier this year of a load of Italian hemp seeds headed for Kentucky, where state officials view hemp as a potential cash crop and savior of the state’s troubled agricultural industry.

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Following a two-week legal battle, the seeds were released in May for “experimental plantings” overseen by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, according to a May 23 article on the Huffington Post online news site.

The U.S., according to the VoteHemp organization (www.VoteHemp.com), is the only industrialized nation in the world that prohibits hemp cultivation and use.

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In recent years, however, there have been several bills introduced in Congress to either legalize (or authorize for experimental purposes) hemp cultivation, including the Farm Bill of 2014.

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“Miracle plant”

Hemp is viewed by its supporters as a kind of miracle plant for industrial applications, easily grown without the use of chemicals, and requiring far less water than other industrial crops. Using either the seeds or the fibers of the plant, hemp can be processed to make a wide range of products, including medicinal supplements, clothing, cooking oil, industrial lubricants, paper, construction materials, rope and more.

At the June 12 meeting, held at the Third Street Center in Carbondale, local political activist Sue Gray and a group made up of farmers and non-farmers discussed the idea of forming a co-op of farmers and others from communities around the Western Slope.

“The hemp plant has been described as the new gold rush,” Gray told her audience.

Gray told The Sopris Sun this week that at least three Western Slope farmers, that she knows of, already have signed up with a Colorado state registry to grow hemp, and others are interested.

She declined to identify the famers out of concern that they would be targeted for prosecution by the DEA, despite the fact that a 2012 amendment to the Colorado Constitution legalized the cultivation of hemp along with marijuana.

“We don’t know how much danger we’re going to put people in” if they are identified publicly, Gray said.

Still, she said, “It seems like there’s a lot of interest from a lot of different parties.”

The current focus of the budding co-op organization, she said, is to secure a source of seeds to get crops started that would be useful in industrial applications.

Be careful

At the meeting, local hemp experts Summer Star Haeske and Barbara Filippone, of the EnviroTextiles company in Glenwood Springs (www.envirotextile.com), urged the audience to be careful in selecting seed types, which characteristically are used to produce crops intended for seed production or fiber.

Filippone has worked in numerous other countries to get hemp industries up and running, including China, currently the leading producer in the world, and has been importing hemp and other environmentally friendly fibers to the U.S. for decades. “It takes five factories to produce fiber to manufacture a garment,” she said, noting that there are dormant factories and other facilities around the Western Slope that could be converted to hemp-related production centers.

Haeske said that, statewide, there were 189 farmers ready to grow hemp as of early June, and that the lack of seed is the main impediment to their plans.

The next step, however, is to get the co-op organized, starting with a steering committee, Gray told The Sopris Sun this week.

“We need leaders,” she declared in a newsletter issued on July 2. “The future of the Valley Hemp Co-op depends on a focused group of individuals creating a clear path forward.”

By July 7, she said in a telephone interview, she had several interested potential members of the steering committee, and is seeking more.

Interested parties can contact the co-op organizers through the website, www.valleyhempco-op.org.

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