Colorado tells farmers to wait on hemp

Nine states have already removed barriers to growing industrial hemp and others may follow. (Creative Commons)
Nine states have already removed barriers to growing industrial hemp and others may follow. (Creative Commons)

Aspiring hemp growers are stuck in a tricky gray area these days. While some states have given the go-ahead to growing and processing the plant, a blanket ban still exists at the federal level.

Proponents say industrial hemp could be the country’s next cash crop. But farmers are unable to plant without fear of retribution, given hemp’s listing as a controlled substance. Not to mention the frequent opposition from law enforcement.

Local police departments and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency have said industrial hemp could thwart large-scale drug busts. They’re worried that scofflaw farmers will plant a field of hemp while hiding marijuana within the rows.

Marijuana and hemp look the same, but differ in chemical make up. The hemp plant is mostly used for its fiber, in products like clothing and lotions. Hemp only has trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana.

In Colorado, a state set to be the first in the country to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use, agriculture officials are asking anxious farmers to be patient. There’s still work to be done before hemp growers can register with the state’s agriculture department.

At least one Colorado farmer couldn’t wait. Ryan Loflin of the southeastern town of Springfield, Colo., planted his hemp crop last week, just a few days after state lawmakers passed rules for recreational marijuana. What’s not finished is a regulatory framework for industrial hemp. Until those rules are in place, no one is enforcing industrial hemp growth and processing, leaving farmers like Loflin in a strange legal limbo.

“A lot of folks believe that industrial hemp has considerable promise and so they’re interested in when they can start,” said Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Carleton said his phone has been ringing off the hook since rules for recreational marijuana passed the state legislature and Loflin’s historic planting made headlines. Lawmakers chose not to set hemp rules themselves, instead passing that task off to the agriculture department. Carleton said that move led to some confusion.

“I think [farmers] would be well-advised to wait until the rules are in place and the registration program in place, because I can’t really speak to what legal status they would be in,” Carleton said.

Lawmakers in Kentucky have also recently set up a system for farmers to grow, process and sell hemp. Kentucky’s senators, Republicans Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Mitch McConnell, have pushed to include hemp legalization into the latest drafts of the farm bill.  

In all, nine states have removed barriers to growing industrial hemp. About two dozen more have passed legislation to create hemp commissions, resolutions in support of hemp cultivation and directives to study hemp’s potential economic impact.

However, until Congress takes up the legality of hemp, don’t necessarily expect to drive down roads near you and see fields of (legal) green stuff.

Related: Legalize it? Kentucky farmers look to hemp