By John Colson
Sopris Sun Correspondent
Local advocates for creating a hemp industry in Colorado are actively pursuing their goal, including the creation of a year-long schedule of activities for local supporters throughout 2015, and plans to support a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on Jan. 8 that would legalize the cultivation of hemp for farmers across the country.
Hemp, the non-intoxicating cousin to the marijuana plant, was legalized by Amendment 64 to the Colorado Constitution, which was passed by voters statewide in 2012, and state bureaucrats have been working on a framework to enable cultivation and use of the plant ever since.
A total of 14 states around the U.S. have passed similar legislation, aimed at creating a legal outlook that hemp is distinct from marijuana and that its cultivation should be again permitted as part of the nation’s industrial output.
News organizations around the state have carried stories about the difficulties inherent in putting together a hemp industry, starting with a definitional division in the state’s regulations between hemp fields for research and development (R&D), and fields intended for commercial applications.
The Colorado Hemp Education Association, based in the Roaring Fork Valley, in its January newsletter urged members and supporters to contact the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) to prevent the state’s Industrial Hemp Advisory Committee from raising licensing fees for R&D plots.
“We don’t really care if they raise the fees for commercial hemp cultivation,” said Jackie Chenoweth, one of the leaders of the CHEA, said prior to a meeting of the committee on Jan. 23.
The letter-writing campaign was aimed at keeping R&D registration fees at their initial, 2013 level — a $100 flat fee and $5 per acre, with a requirement that the R&D plot be no larger than 10 acres — compared to the $200 flat fee, and $1 per-acre supplemental fee, for commercial hemp operations.
The committee on Jan. 23 was scheduled to consider, among other things, a fee increase that requires landowners to pay $500 for either a commercial operation or an R&D plot, a development that hemp advocates say would discourage farmers from getting involved with hemp cultivation.
Duane Sinning of the Department of Agriculture said the meeting was a hearing to gather public comment, and that no decisions were made.
He said the advisory committee will consider the information gathered and, at the Feb. 11 meeting of the Agriculture Commission, will present the findings and any recommendation they come up with.
Currently, state and federal laws concerning hemp cultivation and processing define hemp as a variant of the cannabis plant that contains no more than .3 percent, or three-tenths of a percent of the chemical “delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol” or THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana that gets people high.
That level of THC, according to the CDA, is the accepted level in countries that allow hemp cultivation, such as Canada.
DEA has trouble
Cultivation of hemp is illegal under U.S. federal law, primarily because federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents have difficulty telling hemp from marijuana in the field, but legal under the laws of Colorado and other states that recently have passed laws legalizing hemp as an industrial plant.
And last year, the Agriculture Act of 2014, known as the Farm Bill, contained a provision that authorized hemp cultivation “for purposed of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research,” as long as hemp cultivation is legal under the laws of the relevant state government.
The state agriculture department’s website indicates that there currently are 131 registrants for hemp cultivation; 46 are commercial enterprises, 67 are categorized as R&D, and 18 hold both commercial and R&D registrations, according to the CDA website.
Larimer County on the Front Range is said to have the most commercial registrations (21), followed by Delta County on the Western Slope (13) and Boulder County (12.)
Boulder County has the highest number of R&D registrations (25), followed by Larimer (20) and Delta (14), according to the website, which adds that 39 of the state’s 64 counties contain registered hemp fields.
Registrants have informed the CDA that they are planning a multiplicity of uses for their hemp once it is harvested and processed, including such categories as clothing, cleaning supplies, “hempcrete” for building, spun insulation, paper fiber, hemp coffee, edible oils, dietary supplements, sprouts, seed for sale and replanting, and CBD extraction for medicinal purposes.
Roaring Fork Valley residents Sue Gray (who also is a member of the board of directors for The Sopris Sun) and Jackie Chenoweth last year started the CHEA after meetings in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale convinced them and others that there is a good deal of interest in hemp cultivation in this region.
Gray told The Sopris Sun this week that the organization has a steering committee of eight people who hail from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, and an e-mail list of approximately 80 members.
Right now, she said, “We’re in an information gathering mode. We’re educating ourselves, so we can educate others.”
She said the group’s website (coloradohemped.org) has attracted interest from area farmers, as well as from a California-based medicinal-hemp pharmaceutical firm that is hoping to buy CBD hemp from Colorado farmers.
Currently, Gray said, the firm must buy its hemp products from sources outside the U.S.
A key problem, Gray said, has been how to obtain hemp seeds for Colorado farmers to use in planting crops.
Under federal law, hemp seeds are classified under Schedule I in the DEA’s categories of drugs, meaning hemp seeds are considered drugs as potent and dangerous as heroin, despite hemp’s lack of psychotropic effects on humans.
And even if seeds can be obtained and planted, Gray continued, unprocessed hemp cannot be shipped out of Colorado, again due to federal laws.
She said the CHEA has heard from some entrepreneurs interested in starting up processing plants in Colorado, but so far there has been no activity to follow up on that interest.
“Everything’s kind of up in the air right now,” Gray said of the CHEA’s activities.
The CHEA newsletter, sent out earlier in January, outlines a number of activities, including participation in hemp-related conferences and other events, showing films about hemp and its applications, entering a hemp float in the Fourth of July parade in Carbondale, and possibly planting a hemp plot in the summer with harvest planned in the fall.
Gray said the CHEA also may send emissaries to Canada, where hemp cultivation and processing is legal, to check out the state of the industry there.