By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Jackie Chenoweth is what one might call an industrial-hemp enthusiast; someone who, with a silent partner, has been working for about four years through their organization, the Colorado Hemp Education Association (www.coloradohemped.org), to bring about what she sees as a necessary change in laws governing hemp at the state and federal level.
The Carbondale-area resident firmly believes the plant, a non-psychoactive member of the cannabis family of plants — meaning one cannot get “high” on hemp — can change the world for the better if only people can learn that hemp is not the same thing as “pot” and that hemp has more than 25,000 known uses that have nothing to do with altering one’s consciousness.
Hemp and its psychoactive cousin, pot, were legalized by two voter-approved constitutional amendments, in 2000 and 2012, sparking what is known as Colorado’s “green boom” of cannabis-related businesses, though hemp has lagged behind pot for a number of reasons, including federal prohibitions against both.
Rather than simply sitting back and hoping for her hemp-advocacy dream to come true, Chenoweth has become an activist; one who puts out a quarterly newsletter, allows herself to be interviewed by reporters, and joins in activities and organizations who believe in the same thing she does where hemp is concerned.
And, in her latest gambit to gain high-profile adherents to her ideas, she has penned a letter to President Donald Trump, asking him to sign on to movement to legalize industrial hemp as a regular crop in the U.S. pantheon of agricultural products.
“Everybody, I think, has been put off by the whole Trump election,” said Chenoweth.
But, as noted above, she has written to the president, asking him to join our nation’s first president, George Washington, and others through the decades who recognized hemp as an important component of America’s industrial might.
President Trump has indicated, at various times, that he is not all that interested in coming down hard on states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana and industry observers believe Trump also favors leaving the nascent hemp industry alone in states where it is legal.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, the hemp industry is looking to grow in the coming years, in part by education of the public.
“We do events,” she declared during a recent interview with The Sopris Sun, “and we try to educate the public about the differences between hemp and marijuana.”
Of course, she conceded, that statement alone illustrates a big part of hemp’s problem — it has for too long been inextricably linked to its herbological cousin, popularly known as marijuana.
In fact, the very word, “hemp,” is viewed by some as interchangeable with the common terms describing its more psychoactive cousin — pot, herb, ganja, weed, the drug is called by many different names.
But, she said with emphasis, “Hemp is not marijuana!”
Hemp, she said, looks very different from the usual pot plant, in that hemp typically is thinner and taller does not have the same bushy “buds” that characterize pot plants, and usually is below the legal maximum of .3 percent level of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component that gives users the high from pot.
In fact, the .3 percent maximum THC level, which is enforced by the State of Colorado to determine whether a hemp crop can legally be harvested and used, is one of the legal limitations that she and others believe needs to be changed (pot grown and sold in Colorado, by comparison, can reach THC levels as high as nearly 20 percent.)
As noted by those interviewed for this story, the hemp industry in Colorado is growing rapidly.
There is a division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture devoted exclusively to the industry, and the CDA’s website (www.colorado.gov/pacific/agplants/industrial-hemp) displays more than 55 pages containing more than 400 businesses that have registered with the hemp program.
In the Roaring Fork Valley region, the list shows five such businesses in Garfield County (one of which is listed in Carbondale), one in Pitkin County, and 19 in neighboring Mesa County, to count just a few.
A woman with one of the companies, Salt Creek Hemp Co. in Collbran (at the eastern fringe of the Grand Mesa), and a man who has started a county-wide cooperative of hemp companies from different parts of Mesa County, spoke with The Sopris Sun about the business, their prospects and their concerns.
Margaret MacKenzie, with Salt Creek, is one who objects to the state limit of .3 percent, which she said is difficult to comply with given that the state tests use only the top two feet of a plant, and that is where the THC and other “cannabinoids” tend to be at their highest concentration.
She and Mike Villa, the manager of the hemp coop, suggested that it would be more realistic to put the limit at one percent, while Chenoweth argued that an arbitrary maximum is not needed at all.
“It should be an end-use standard,” Chenoweth said, meaning regulators should check how the plants are being used as proof that producers are not stealthily growing pot.
According to MacKenzie, there are more than 150 producers of hemp in the state, farming more than 6,000 acres, which she said is “more than the rest of the United States combined.”
Most of the other companies on the CEA list of registrants, she said, are either processing operations or equipment suppliers.
And the processing that is going on, she said, is mostly involved in manufacturing hemp-seed oil or hemp-fiber-based products for construction and other industrial applications.
Nationwide, MacKenzie said, more than 25 states either have laws permitting hemp production and processing, or are getting close to it.
And that, she said, should convince federal authorities to leave the industry alone.
“That’s a lot of toothpaste you can’t put back in the tube,” MacKenzie said of the increasing interest in hemp.
Another hemp-oriented company on the Western Slope, Enviro Textiles of Glenwood Springs, has a years-long record of importing fabric made from hemp and other fibrous plants, from China and other nations where hemp is a legal and thriving business, and reselling the raw textiles to firms that turn it into finished products.
“I have an unprecedented demand for product,” said company founder Barbara Fillipone, who runs Enviro Textiles with her daughter, Summer, and who said she is constantly fielding requests for hemp-based textiles, medicines and construction materials.
She spoke vehemently about the .3-percent rule, saying, “There has to be an amendment to the bill, that removes the .3 percent limit,” which would allow the industry to figure out its market and begin to fill the demand.
Despite all the uncertainty felt by hemp advocates in Colorado these days, advocates pointed to one clear indication that the U.S. business community is paying attention and getting involved.
The Canadian Broadcast System reported in 2015 that the Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods company, which in 2013 made more than $38 million in revenues (an increase of 24 percent over the prior year) was purchased by a U.S. firm — Compass Diversified Holdings, at a cost of $133 million.