Hemp: The fiber side of cannabis

Amendment 64 legalizes industrial hemp farming in Colorado

Photo courtesy of Anndrea Hermann

Correction: The Hemp Industries Association was mistakenly referred to as the Hemp Initiative Association in one instance in this story.

While marijuana advocates celebrated the success of Amendment 64 in the November election, other cannabis aficionados began focusing on something new: farming hemp legally.

Hemp industry leaders are starting to discuss opportunities for growing hemp in Colorado as state officials continue to plan how it will be regulated.

Hemp is a fibrous material extracted from the stem of a cannabis plant that can be used for a wide variety of products like food, oils and building materials, according to Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp. Under current regulations, hemp must be imported into the United States, which is not sustainable or cost-effective, he says.

“It would be much better to grow hemp close to a building site and process it locally,” Murphy says.

Unlike marijuana, which is typically cultivated through cloning, hemp is propagated by planting seed and through pollination, according to Anndrea Hermann, president of the Hemp Industries Association. Hemp is grown to have large, fibrous stalks that can be processed into a variety of materials and does not contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

“We’re talking about cultural diversification. There is a large market that is to be had on the fiber textiles side, on the human product side and building application,” Hermann says. “This would be an opportunity for diversification of farming systems and the opportunity to cultivate a crop that is, as of now, only allowed as an import.”

Growing hemp alongside marijuana might boost the farming industry, but the two don’t play nicely with each other.

“Cross pollination is a risk because hemp has pollen,” Hermann says. “Leaving male plants in the fields does pose a risk where industrial hemp could pollinate the female marijuana plants.”

A potential cannabis clash is a risk hemp industry leaders are considering.

“As far as hemp pollen goes, it does travel a reasonable distance, but I believe most marijuana is grown indoors, so it won’t be a major factor,” says Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association. “If marijuana growers are growing outdoors, they will be pollinated and it is something we’ll need to look into.”

The possibility for industrial hemp farming has never been more realistic. Amendment 64 concertedly addresses marijuana and hemp by declaring the two should be regulated separately and mandates that the Colorado General Assembly set up regulations for industrial hemp farming no later than July 1, 2014, according to Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Currently it is against federal law to grow any derivative of cannabis, including hemp, containing less than 0.03 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis.

“Under federal rules, hemp and marijuana are treated exactly the same,” Carleton says. “What [Amendment 64] has done is it declares industrial hemp should be regulated separately.”

According to the definitions set by Amendment 64, “‘marijuana’ or ‘marihuana’ does not include industrial hemp, nor does it include fiber produced from the stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of the plant, sterilized seed of the plant which is incapable of germination, or the weight of any other ingredient combined with marijuana to prepare topical or oral administrations, food, drink, or other product.”

The distinction is key.

“It is important for the public to understand that the market cannot develop properly until federal law is changed, allowing domestic sources of pedigreed seed, crop insurance and support and research from Colorado agriculture universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture into hemp varieties which will grow well in Colorado,” Steenstra says.

Drawing a line between hemp and marijuana can allow for new industry in the United States — starting in Colorado. Carleton, who serves on the Amendment 64 implementation task force, says rough drafts for regulation of the hemp industry have already begun and the task force has urged the General Assembly to make a decision this session and not wait until 2014.

“What the final provisions are going to be is still unclear. We’ll have to wait and see how that bill proceeds,” Carleton says. “But I think that we’re all moving forward with hemp … [hemp industry standards] will be implemented and put into place.”

The federal response to industrial hemp growing in Colorado is unclear, but if regulated strictly and appropriately, Carleton says he doesn’t think it will be a big issue.

“In the case of marijuana, the federal government has approached it in different ways depending on how strictly regulated it is in a particular state. They have pretty much left Colorado alone because we do have a fairly rigorous system of operations,” Carleton says. “I don’t know that there is a 100 percent fool-proof system, but I think Colorado has always been very good at being strict and careful.”

Federal legalization of hemp may not be too far behind Colorado.

The Industrial Hemp Farming Act was first introduced to Congress in 2007 by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and again in 2009. Both times the bill was assigned to a committee but never received a hearing or floor vote.

The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 was introduced to the House of Representatives and the Senate in February. If passed, it would exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana and allow people to grow it legally in the United States.

“While support is growing, it is unlikely to pass this year,” according to Jen Clanahan, an aide to Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, a cosponsor of the bill.

The bill was referred to committees as of late March.

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