DENVER - Voter approval of legalized marijuana last November caused a national celebration among pot aficionados, but it is also drawing an enthusiastic reaction from Colorado farm country.
That's because Amendment 64 also legalized hemp, a crop that has many uses but won't get people high if it's grown properly.
"I've probably had more people stop me on the road in my area of the country asking me about hemp than anything in the last several years," said Rocky Mountain Farmers Union President Kent Peppler.
Legislators on the House Agriculture Committee were just as interested Monday, and it's little wonder why.
Hemp's strong fibers can be used for clothing as simple as a T-shirt or complex as a fireproof suit, witnesses said. Businessmen told the committee that they have built houses out of it.
Adam Dunn, a marijuana entrepreneur who moved to Denver from Amsterdam, Netherlands, two years ago, dazzled legislators with his hemp jacket, which he said can stop a .357-caliber bullet. His company made its first bulletproof coat for the rapper Snoop Dogg, he said.
Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, sponsored Senate Bill 241, which sets up state regulation of hemp growers in the Colorado Department of Agriculture. It passed the House panel 11-0 Monday.
Coram said 75 people showed up to his town meeting at a Montrose John Deere dealership this year, wanting to hear more about hemp.
"We may be on the cutting edge of a great agricultural crop for rural Colorado," Coram said. "I think it's an opportunity for a new crop that has an old history."
That history remains a problem today. Although the U.S. government encouraged farmers to grow hemp during World War II, it has been illegal for decades under federal law. Members of Congress are pushing a bill to remove hemp from the federal list of illegal drugs, Coram said.
Even though hemp is now legal in Colorado, farmers are hesitant to grow the crop because they don't know if it will disqualify them for benefits from the federal farm bill, Peppler said. However, legislators are anticipating that Congress might soon legalize hemp cultivation. If it does, then the bill would turn over hemp regulation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and end the state program.
The legislative controversy over marijuana is nowhere to be found over hemp. The bill passed 34-1 in the Senate last week, and it has bipartisan backing in the House. Coram's fellow sponsor is House Agriculture Committee Chairman Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.
The bill has to go to the House Appropriations Committee, and it must clear the full House by May 8, when the yearly session ends.
Coram said he is likely to ask for an amendment in the House that allows inspections to make sure farmers are not growing hemp with too much THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Coram doesn't think there will be problems with farmers confusing hemp for marijuana - knowingly or not. The crops look different, he said.
"I'm not an expert, but I can see the difference very easily," Coram said.