The Colorado Legislature passed the hemp bill, SB 117, to protect hemp farmers who use federal water sources for their crop, in May. It recognizes industrial hemp as an agricultural product that a decreed water right can be used on.
The bill was introduced in the state Legislature by Sen. Don Coram, and sponsored by Rep. Marc Catlin. Both are Montrose Republicans.
“Our farmers grow hemp with that water, our ag researchers use that water for hemp, and this bill clarifies it is Colorado water being put to beneficial use,” Coram said.
Hemp farmers face some uncertainty if they irrigate with water from a federal water project because, as a genetic variant of marijuana, hemp is still considered illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substance Act.
“It’s always been a concern for local hemp farmers, and a lot of them stopped growing because they did not want to risk losing water rights,” said Sharon King, a local hemp advocate. “This support from the state gives them some reassurance.”
Colorado has legalized hemp, and commercial permits have been issued through the Department of Agriculture since 2014.
The plant’s stem, leaves and flowers are used for making textiles, fuels, oils, soaps and medicine. Hemp is strictly regulated to ensure it does not exceed .3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the marijuana drug, which has THC levels of between 5 percent and 50 percent.
In Montezuma County, many hemp growers depend on water from McPhee Reservoir, a federal project managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Water Conservancy general manager Mike Preston said customers are allowed to use water to grow hemp, and the district supports Coram’s legislative effort to protect the hemp farmer.
“Those of us that supply water are confident our local farming community will make the most of any opportunity to test industrial hemp as a commercial crop,” Preston wrote to Coram in a March 17 letter. “Hemp being classified by the federal government as a drug is clearly a misclassification of an industrial crop.”
Pleasant View hemp grower Merle Root said the new law is a relief for farmers like herself who rely on water from McPhee Reservoir.
“There will be less worry about that,” she said. “I’m excited for this year’s crop because last year’s did so well and passed state testing. I’m processing it into creams and lotions and plan to sell it.”
Under the U.S. farm bill, the federal government did allow for universities, including Colorado State University and the Southwest Colorado Research Center, in Yellow Jacket, to grow hemp for research purposes.
Research Center manager Abdel Berrada was in Denver Thursday picking up hemp seeds for the third annual test plot at the Yellow Jacket farm.
The Yellow Jacket center, which also uses McPhee Reservoir for irrigation, will test a hybrid variety, called Helena, designed to produce seeds and fiber.
“This year, we will focus our testing on the best planting dates and seeding rates to maximize yields,” he said. “The new law will give farmers some piece of mind.”
The center is not allowed to sell the hemp it grows, but they share research results from different hemp varieties with local hemp growers.
The number of Colorado hemp permits issued has increased 138 percent in the last two years. In 2014, 131 permits were issued for 1,811 acres, and in 2016, 312 permits were issued for to grow 8,988 acres of hemp.
In Montezuma County, five farmers have permits to grow hemp, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. La Plata County has seven.
Hemp has good potential in Colorado, Coram said, and needs the full support of states and the federal government.
“It was time to end the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding this question, by recognizing industrial hemp as an agricultural product for which a person with a water right decreed for agricultural use can use the water,” Coram told the Colorado Senate Republicans group. “We can broaden options for Colorado farmers and strengthen the state’s farm sector overall by finally putting to rest any doubts about whether growers of industrial hemp can use federal reclamation water on those crops.”
A 2014 Bureau of Reclamation policy manual stated the federal agency has an obligation to uphold federal law, which prohibits approving use of Reclamation water for activities not allowed under the Controlled Substances Act.