Colorado clears the way for industrial hemp farming

Greg Campbell | Contributor

Colorado’s amber waves of grain may soon make way for seas of green under new regulations released this week clearing the way for farmers to plant hemp next year.

Hemp is marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin that was legalized along with recreational pot by Colorado voters last November, though both remain illegal under federal law.

While the state’s burgeoning recreational pot industry has generated headlines from coast to coast, the less sexy hemp industry could prove to be far more profitable.

Hemp is used in numerous products from fabric to food, but because the plant and its seeds are illegal under the same federal law that prohibits marijuana, the raw material must be imported, usually from China and Canada.

In 2011, more than $11.5 million worth of hemp products were imported into the United States and the retail value of all hemp products sold here was about $500 million, according to the Congressional Research Service. Canadian hemp seed producers can earn as much as $1,000 per acre. By comparison, Canadian wheat sold for just over $300 per acre in 2012. Hemp advocates cited by the Denver Post said the hemp market in Colorado could be 10 times as big as retail marijuana, which is expected to generate as much as $270 million in sales per year.

Now Colorado farms can start to get in on the action as well. State regulations require them to pay $1 per acre and a $200 annual fee. They will also have to submit to inspections to ensure their crops contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The regulations must be adopted by the state agricultural commissioners, who are expected to consider them next week.

But it’s not all clear skies for prospective hemp farmers. Regardless of state rules, the plant is still illegal under federal law and acres of hemp could prove too tempting of a target for federal drug agents. And although the U.S. Justice Department said earlier this year that it would give Colorado and Washington a wide berth to regulate the plant themselves, importing nonsterilized starter seeds is also illegal, meaning the first hurdle for growers is to break the law by smuggling them to Colorado or risk having them seized by customs agents.

Those concerns may prove to be academic. Earlier this year, a Colorado farmer harvested the first U.S. hemp crop in more than 50 years, without bothering to wait for state regulations and apparently unconcerned about breaking federal law.

Ryan Loflin sold his hemp seed oil to Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which uses hemp seed oil to make its bath and beauty products.

“We’re very excited that Ryan has done this,” David Bronner, president of the company, told the Denver Post. “Ryan has kind of busted it open and taken this necessary step to make hemp a viable crop.”

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