For the first time since 1937, industrial hemp has been decriminalized at the federal level and can be grown legally in the United States, but on a limited basis.
A landmark provision in the recently passed Farm Bill recognizes hemp as distinct from its genetic cousin marijuana, and exempts it from U.S. drug laws in order to allow for crop research by universities, colleges and state agriculture departments.
The new federal law, written by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) allows for an agricultural pilot programs for hemp "in states that permit the growth or cultivation of hemp" including Colorado.
"It is a major policy shift," said Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp. "The new federal law exempts hemp from Controlled Substances Act and allows the state to regulate the growing of industrial hemp without risk of prosecution."
Key language in the amendment eliminates the need for a permit to grow hemp from the Drug Enforcement Agency, which was rarely issued.
Hemp is a genetic strain of cannabis that does not have the psychoactive properties of marijuana.
Varieties of hemp stalk and seeds are grown and processed throughout the world to manufacture soaps, fuel, foods, oils, lotions, paper, building materials, rope, and as a less toxic replacement for plastic.
Section 7606 of The Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill) is titled "Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research." The two-page section outlines how states that have legalized hemp can set up pilot programs to grow the crop. Provisions of the federal law state:
Only an institution of higher education, as defined by law, or state department of agriculture may grow or cultivate industrial hemp.
Industrial hemp grown cannot have more than 0.3 percent delta-9 tetrahydroccannabinol concentration (THC). Medical and recreational grades of marijuana contain 10 to 15 percent THC.
Sites used for growing or cultivating industrial hemp must be certified by and registered with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
Authorizes agricultural departments of states that have legalized hemp to create regulations for the pilot program.
State vs. federal
Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 in 2012 legalizing hemp along with recreational marijuana. Under A64, the Colorado Department of Agriculture will begin issuing permits to cultivate hemp for farmers under strict guidelines this spring.
However, A64 is in violation of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. The Act lists all strains of the cannabis plant - including marijuana used for pain relief and recreation, and hemp grown strictly for industrial purposes - as illegal.
Both hemp and marijuana strains of the cannabis plant are listed under the Schedule I category alongside heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote.
President Obama has directed U.S. attorneys to not go after marijuana and hemp cultivators in states that have legalized the plant.
The Farm Bill authorizing hemp is legally ironclad at the federal level because it exempts it from the Controlled Substances Act.
The law language states: "Notwithstanding the Controlled Substance Act, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act or any other Federal law, an institution of higher education or a State department of agriculture may grow or cultivate industrial hemp."
The new federal law is broad-based, Murphy said. It does not limit the size of test plots for hemp, or prohibit commercial sales by colleges and universities, nor does it prohibit obtaining seeds from other countries. Vote Hemp reports average net profits for hemp at $250 per acre.
Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, described the Farm Bill's hemp provision as "a big step."
Under the Farm Bill hemp provision, department of agriculture could itself conduct a pilot program, but Carleton said they will at this point probably leave the research to universities and colleges.
"It really makes more sense for them to be the leaders on R&D for hemp," he said, adding that public education about hemp's potential is maturing.
In Yellow Jacket, Colorado State University runs a agricultural research station. Crop specialist Abdel Berrada said there has been a lot of interest from the public for hemp, and CSU could play a role.
"It may be a good opportunity, and I believe the upper administration is looking into it," Berrada said. "Before, it has always been avoided because it was a threat to our federal funding, but the Farm Bill eliminates that problem."
CSU's public relations department released a statement to The Cortez Journal on the matter.
"Colorado State University is watching closely to see when language in the farm bill results in policy changes needed to permissibly cultivate, research and conduct other activities related to growing industrial hemp. Once regulations concerning industrial hemp are issued, CSU is poised to help explore the possibility that hemp could become an important crop in Colorado."
Mitch Davis, public affairs director for Fort Lewis College, said the school does not have plans to grow hemp under the Farm Bill provision.
"We do have an agricultural field school at the Hesperus site where we do research on high altitude crops and have courses, so we could decide to do it in the future," Davis said.
The Farm Bill expires in five years. Murphy, of Vote Hemp, said typically the same programs are rolled into the next farm bill, but in the meantime bills legalizing hemp production nationwide are working their way through Congress.
"We are working to make hemp legalization permanent for the entire U.S.," he said. "Once all of the seeds and test crops are in the country, and farmers are in a position to sell commercially, it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle."