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First of all, let’s get one thing straight: Hemp is not marijuana, and it can’t get you high.

Dozens of countries grow industrial hemp for its seeds, stalk and fibers – employing hundreds of thousands and bringing in truckloads of revenue. Until last year, planting it anywhere in the U.S. was prohibited. But the passage of Colorado’s Proposition 64 in 2012 legalizing the usage of recreational marijuana turned the tables on the powers that be, forcing the simultaneous legalization of industrial hemp and mandating the establishment of a permitting framework.

Today more than 60,000 acres of hemp are cultivated just north of the U.S. border, and Canadian farmers are reaping a billion-dollar harvest as they export seeds for food, hemp oil for soap, and other parts of the plant for myriad uses. The industry’s growth has been so strong that cultivators have effectively outstripped available space while demand throughout the U.S. only increases.

Advocates like Zev Paiss, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Hemp Association, say hemp’s market potential is much stronger than marijuana’s will ever be. While most of us are only familiar with hemp as a fabric, it is used in some 25,000 to 50,000 products. You can buy hemp milk at your local grocery store, hemp ice cream at some gas stations, silky-soft hemp clothing in malls, and hemp products loaded with Cannabidiols, or CBD’s, for medicinal use are showing up nationwide.

Rather quietly in 2014, more than 200 acres were legally cultivated in Colorado – the first crop in almost 60 years. Though a tiny harvest compared to corn, wheat and soybeans, nearly everyone recognizes the modern industry is still in its infancy. But it’s not just the hippies who are crowing that “it won’t be long” before tens of thousands of acres here are sewn with different varietals as farmers cash in on pent-up demand and capitalize on new uses for the plant. Though it’s no longer a legal battle to grow on the state level, enthusiastic hemp pioneers are still fighting a severe seed shortage, due in large part to federal customs and other agencies that continue to block the importation of viable seeds.

Following Colorado’s lead

Since 2012, hemp advocates in Kentucky and more than 20 other states have followed Colorado’s example, loosening restrictions on industrial production in one form or another. However, Colorado is the only state that allows unfettered growing as long as permits are acquired from the state’s Department of Agriculture. In order to legally grow industrial hemp in large areas, growers are required to pay a $500 registration fee, plus a fee per each acre sewn.

Last year’s Farm Bill contained provisions legalizing industrial hemp research. New bills to legalize hemp production on the federal level enjoy the rarest privilege of all: bi-cameral, bi-partisan support. Introduced by Oregon’s Ron Wyden (D), Senate Bill S.134, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015, has the backing of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as well as Colorado’s freshmen Senator Cory Gardner.

He’s gone on record saying hemp legalization would create jobs and “has the potential to be a major boon to Colorado agriculture, giving farmers another viable and profitable option for their fields.”

Surprisingly, Democratic Senator Michael Bennett remains silent on the issue and did not respond to requests for information about his position. On the House side, Colorado Representatives Jared Polis, Diana DeGette and former Weld County District Attorney and staunch conservative Ken Buck are all co-sponsors (along with more than 50 other members of congress) of a companion legalization bill, HR 525.

Back in Denver, however, Gov. John Hickenlooper remains unconvinced, stating in a Colorado Public Radio interview last year that worldwide industrial hemp “is a niche crop” without much of a market. He has, however, respected legalization efforts and asked federal regulators to allow the controlled importation of seeds.

Seeds of doubt

Though confusion about hemp legalization remains, the biggest challenge currently is literally tiny: access to viable seeds.

Early on, a few eager distributors harvested wild hemp in Nebraska – survivors and descendents of legally grown World War II varietals — for their seeds and sold them to eager Colorado hemp pioneers last year. The offspring, however, generally proved to be as feral as their parents.

“Seventy to 80 percent of what was grown last year was ditch weed,” says Star Haeske, marketing and sales director at Glenwood Springs-based Envirotextiles, one of the largest importers and distributors of industrial hemp in the world. “It has none of the characteristics we need for industrial grade hemp. It doesn’t have any of the seeds, fiber or core hurds. It’s almost better that folks didn’t get a hold of bad seed and contaminate their lands since now there are better supplies out there.”

According to Haeske and her mother, Barbara Filippone, the best hemp plants grown last year came from the best genetics – with some seed smuggled into the country from Canada, some by other means.

Though Canada’s industrial hemp cultivation began 18 years ago, it took “seven to eight years to really get off the ground,” Haeske says. “They had to find and develop the right seeds and cultivars. Through standardization and certification, they have less waste and more productive plants.”

Quality Assurance

By certifying their seeds, Canadians have helped standardize processing and output quality. The approved varietals are for hemp-press seed oil, food, fiber and other uses. With the right dual-purpose cultivar, all the parts of the plant can be used, depending on how they are processed and marketed.

“We have the prime opportunity to focus on a dual-purpose crop if we can get some order in what seeds are grown and where,” Filippone says.

After last year’s initial crop, Colorado farmers are reporting that hemp needs to acclimate to this region, just as farmers here need to acclimate to hemp. But it’s fair to say that the next generation of hemp will be stronger than the first. Ahead of this year’s planting, state regulators have updated hemp rules based on feedback from their last experience.

Though the state does have a federal permit to import seeds and redistribute them to universities and other approved researchers, “that program has not yet been set up,” says Paiss. In an ironic turn, he and others in the hemp industry are actually requesting government regulation here.

“It would be wonderful if there was a certified seed distribution center that farmers could access,” Paiss says. “The demand is there, but it’s the federal blockage of imported seed that’s holding planting back.” Until that law is changed or until the state takes an active role in importing, he fears Colorado farmers and the industry as a whole will be hampered.

“I know of over 30,000 acres of farmland in the state that farmers want to sew with hemp,” Paiss says, “but they can’t legally get quality seeds.”

Though many applications for processed hemp are fairly low tech, research conducted mainly in Canada since prohibition ended there is showing that hemp itself has a host of hitherto unknown medicinal properties. Additionally, hemp fiber may help make graphene, one of the wonder materials of the modern age, both cheaper and more effective.

Officially, as long as industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THCs, it’s legally drug free. However, certain hemp cultivars contain one or more of at least 85 recently discovered types of CBDs, which are non-pyschoactive substances that health professionals of all stripes are discovering have a variety of benefits — perhaps more medical applications than marijuana’s THC.

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Some CBDs reportedly cause a relaxing, stress-relieving feeling. Others can be useful for helping people sleep. Still other CBD combinations can cause drops in cancer levels. Clinical tests are being conducted on individual Cannabidiol affects worldwide as major drug companies muscle their way into a market now populated with upstarts.

Outside Colorado, availability of such products varies — along with quality. Though the Federal Drug Administration has yet to prohibit CBD products, state legislatures nationwide are debating and often approving CBD usage. At press time, Idaho’s state legislature had just passed laws allowing certain CBD-derived medicines to be used for cancer patients though the governor may veto the bill just the same. Unlike Colorado, Idaho law has no distinction between hemp or marijuana; both plants are still completely illegal.

Misunderstanding and rediscovery

Though Colorado Proposition 64 legalized the growing and usage of marijuana and hemp under certain conditions, the products remain illegal on the federal level. That’s the reasoning Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith used to prevent hemp plants and germinating seeds from being sold at the 2nd Annual Northern Colorado Hemp Expo held in Loveland in April.

Taking a hard line on the plant, according to event organizer Morris Beegle, “The Sheriff’s position is that it’s still Schedule 1 and illegal on the federal level, and he can’t tell the difference between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant,” or the seeds, Beegle says.

With all this controversy, it’s easy to ask, “How did we get here?” For a quick recap:

Unfolding History

18th Century: Thomas Jefferson deemed hemp an essential crop and the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution were written on hemp paper.

Late 18th-early 19th Centuries: Americans, like Betsy Ross, used hemp to make flags.

1930s: Hemp champions claim that, powerful interests from the cotton, timber, steel, oil and other industries lobbied fiercly against hemp production. As processing inventions similar to the cotton gin began coming on-line, “They essentially made it uneconomical to grow hemp by getting Washington to pass a tax on hemp production,” says Zev Paiss, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Hemp Association.

World War II era
(1939-1945):

Hemp was one of the most widely grown and used plants in the world. For millennia farmers in China have eaten its protein-rich seeds and used it for clothing and fabrics. Some stuffed naturally anti-microbial hemp into their shoes to kill off fungi and bacteria. Dr. Rudolph Diesel predicted hemp would be processed into ethanol to power the internal combustion engine he created.

(1941): Henry Ford commissioned a car body made out of hemp (likely blended with other plant fibers as well). He famously couldn’t dent the vehicle with a swung mallet.

1970s: Hemp was conflated by President Nixon and his Controlled Substance Act into marijuana and labeled a Schedule I controlled substance – effectively making it illegal to grow for any reason. Most nations abided by the new Drug Enforcement Agency’s prohibition and hemp production became an casualty to the war on drugs.

Today: Companies like BMW, Volkswagon and others are using hemp plastics and fibers in several of their vehicles to save weight and make greener cars. The new BMW electric i3 has exposed hemp fiber door panels that are lighter and stronger than plastic.

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Lee Buchsbaum

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