Colorado starts work on hemp regulation

Kristen Wyatt
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – When Colorado voters legalized marijuana last year, they also legalized its industrial cousin, hemp. Colorado lawmakers have spent a lot of time talking about marijuana, but they just started work Wednesday on regulating industrial hemp.

The Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee voted 5-0 to direct the state Agriculture Department to license hemp growers starting next year. Lawmakers seemed excited about the crop, though some worried that growing it could put Colorado farmers at odds with federal agriculture rules.

Industrial hemp looks like marijuana, but it lacks most of the psychoactive properties of its better-known cousin. Finished hemp is legal under federal law, but growing it is not, so states that legalize hemp must regulate it themselves.

It’s not clear how many Colorado farmers will try growing hemp, but state Department of Agriculture officials said they’ve seen healthy interest.

“We’ve heard from a fair number of producers across the state who have expressed interest in the possibility of growing hemp,” said deputy commissioner Ron Carlton. Agriculture officials say they didn’t have a guess how many farmers would follow through and plant the crop.

Farmers at the committee conceded there are many questions about growing hemp. Because the crop violates federal law, farmers wouldn’t be able to insure it. Growing it could put other federal agriculture payments at risk. Even depositing the profits from raising hemp could be problematic, subjecting a farmer to possible federal money-laundering charges, said Republican Sen. Greg Brophy, a farmer from Wray.

“I think there is potential with this crop, but the hurdles are huge,” Brophy said.

Lawmakers went ahead with the regulation at the urging of farmers who said that even if a hemp market doesn’t immediately materialize, Colorado should still change its law to accommodate the crop’s potential. Hemp can produce oil used for food or fuel, and has been in testing since last year as a plant to clean soil dirtied by mining waste such as copper, lead or arsenic.

Chad Pfitzer, who owns an agricultural mapping company in Broomfield, said Colorado farmers could be modern versions of George Washington Carver, an inventor who developed peanut products to revive the agriculture economy in the post-Civil War South.

“We can take industrial hemp to the next level,” Pfitzer said.