A win for the state, a model for the country

USDA approves Colorado’s State Hemp Plan, providing local hemp farmers more flexibility — and Polis believes it will set the standard.

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Photo courtesy of Boot Ranch FarmsPeggy Schulze

When industrial hemp farming was legalized in 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stipulated that any state, territory or tribe that wanted to participate had to create their own administrative plans for regulation. Colorado’s “State Hemp Plan” was drafted and submitted in June of 2020 — and the USDA subsequently sent the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) back to the drawing board. 

The hemp plan needed work, the USDA asserted, but it wasn’t beyond revision. 

Now, more than 18 months after that original draft was snubbed, after extensive negotiations, the USDA has finally approved the second draft of the CDA’s State Hemp Plan. While it unfortunately doesn’t eliminate the role of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Colorado’s hemp industry, it does offer hemp farmers a little more “flexibility” under state and federal rules. 

Gov. Jared Polis, Commissioner Kate Greenberg and officials from the USDA announced the new State Hemp Plan on Aug. 10.

“Colorado is the undisputed leader in the cannabis industry, and our hemp plan is a model for the country,” said Gov. Polis. “Hemp is a versatile crop, an economic engine that supports jobs and our agriculture industry. We look forward to seeing how hemp can be further developed for fuel, food and other uses while being a source of revenue for family farms.”

The plan is a significant piece of policy for Colorado’s hemp farmers, who have been living in uncertainty after the USDA’s Interim Rule was released in October 2019. That rule required hemp farmers’ raw product be randomly tested for THC within 15 days of harvest, by a DEA-compliant lab — of which there were only two in Colorado. If samples of their crop tested anywhere above .3% THC, not only could it not be sold, but as a Schedule I substance, the harvest would have to be destroyed completely by law enforcement. 

That left no option for remediation. If a product sample tested high, the farmer simply lost their entire crop. Which made the business of hemp farming financially and legally risky, according to Harvey Craig with Boot Ranch Farms in the San Luis Valley. 

“The struggle of the hemp farmer is to grow high quality hemp with really, really good terpenes and keep that THC level at a low point throughout,” Craig says, adding that THC levels (particularly at outdoor farms) can fluctuate very easily depending on soil content and environmental conditions. Having the DEA take a random sample prior to harvest can hit either a high or low point in that fluctuation.

Colorado’s state officials, hemp farmers and businesses openly criticized the strict .3% limit of the USDA’s Interim Rule. It put hemp farmers on a THC tight-rope without any kind of safety-net should they slip. 

Which is why the state’s new Hemp Plan aims to give hemp farmers a little more “flexibility” in that regard, according to officials.

“A producer may remediate by removing and destroying flower material, while retaining stalk, stems, leaf material and seeds,” the State Hemp Plan explains. “A producer may also remediate by shredding the entire plant into a biomass-like material and request re-testing by an authorized sampler of the shredded biomass material for compliance.”

Producers would be responsible for all of the costs associated with remediation and further testing. But if their product tests high, at least it doesn’t completely nullify their bottom line.

The approved plan still requires hemp products to be randomly tested by DEA-compliant labs, and by certified sampling agents for THC content. However, instead of being required to submit their agent-selected samples within 15 days of harvest, they now have 30 days prior to harvest. 

“CDA has worked closely with the USDA to draft a plan that gives the greatest flexibility to Colorado’s hemp producers while ensuring requirements are in place in accordance with federal standards,” said Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg. “Throughout this process, we’ve consulted regularly with stakeholders in the hemp industry, including producers, researchers, policy experts and the public.” Gov.

 Polis hopes that, like Colorado’s other cannabis-related regulatory policies, this progressive State Hemp Plan will become a model and a blueprint for the rest of the nation. Even cultural and cannabis icons like Willie Nelson are calling this a step in the right direction for Colorado’s hemp farmers. 

“Colorado should be proud of leading the charge for the hemp industry. There are many ways that this crop can benefit both small, family farmers and Americans in their everyday lives,” Nelson said in a statement. “From textiles and feed to fuel and plastics, hemp is the answer.”