Does Colorado still have a competitive edge in hemp?

Scott Perez used to be one in a handful of registered industrial hemp growers in Southwest Colorado. But as more people began asking him about growing hemp, Perez also became an agricultural consultant, helping farmers improve their crops and land.

Then, the number of planned hemp crops registered with the Colorado Department of Agriculture nearly doubled after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp on a national level.

In removing hemp as a Schedule 1 drug, the U.S. Congress mandated that hemp farmers could work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to follow the restrictions that still surround the plant, or states could develop and submit their own plans for approval by the USDA.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture submitted its plan for handling hemp to the USDA this week. A bill passed by the Colorado Legislature earlier this month made that possible, by aligning state and federal hemp laws.

Increased testing for THCThe new bill increases testing of hemp crops for THC, the psychoactive compound that results in a high. Each individual field and plot will be tested, a substantial increase in testing measures for Colorado farmers, who might have more than one plot or field.

If the plant has more than 0.3% of the THC chemical, the entire crop has to be destroyed.

Each lab has its own margin of error in testing levels of THC, but overall, if levels are above 0.5%, it is considered marijuana by the government. For comparison, one study published in the Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association found that in 2017, the most popular strains found in dispensaries in Colorado had a THC content that ranged from 17% to 28%.

“We barely have enough resources to do testing as it is, but it will help get rid of bad actors,” or those abusing their hemp license to grow marijuana, Perez said.

The bill also gives inspectors unrestricted access to all plants, storage facilities and records of farmers, which is “not going to go over well with some farmers in the area,” Perez said.

Laws like that will keep some farmers out of the industry who might decide it is more trouble than it is worth, Perez said, such as farmers who could grow hemp for fabric instead of oil.

“In that case, the THC levels shouldn’t matter,” Perez said. “But this is the best we can do at the federal level beyond legalizing cannabis.”

As for whether the new bill that aligns state regulations with federal regulations takes away Colorado’s edge in the industry, Perez said it depends on what other states submit as their plans and what the USDA approves.

“I don’t see it as a step back, I see it as a step forward, though there are a few things that are more burdensome,” said Emily Ibach, director of public policy and state affairs at the Colorado Farm Bureau.

Increasing testing capacity from 35% of the hemp fields in Colorado to 100% of the hemp fields in one year will be a “pretty big feat,” Ibach said, especially since the season is so short.

There will be a good 15 to 30 days from harvest when the Colorado Department of Agriculture will be testing all of the fields and plots, Ibach said.

Increased testing also means fees for hemp farmers will go up in the future, as the program has to be self-funded.

New laws boost researchDespite the extra administrative steps, complying with federal regulations provides advantages for research on hemp, something that will help the industry.

“There are very few certified seeds, and they are not always the highest quality,” Ibach said.

More data will help researchers better understand hemp as a crop, including the best ways to keep THC levels below 0.3% or how to grow hemp in the most profitable way.

With more research, farmers can be confident that growing hemp as a cover or rotational crop won’t land them in jail, Ibach said.

More research could also identify a more reasonable legal limit of THC content for hemp farmers to maintain in their crop.

That’s why the best growers are those who have been in prison for growing pot, Perez said.

“They put in the time and effort to learn what they are doing,” Perez said. “We’re all still experimenting, we don’t have stable crops anywhere yet.”

But Jason Miller, a hemp grower with Two Bears Farm, said there is no scientific evidence that THC levels at or below 0.3% is a reasonable number for farmers to have to meet, especially given how difficult it is for farmers to meet that goal.

“It stops people from getting into it,” Miller said.

Expanding the allowed levels of THC to 1% would be helpful for hemp farmers like Miller.

“I would hope Colorado would get in line with doing their own thing like they did in the first place,” instead of following federal regulations, Miller said.

But Miller said the farm still faces social ramifications for growing hemp, as his neighbors think they are growing marijuana.

Ibach said creating federal regulations for hemp will help legitimize the crop on a national level, which will remove stigmas and help the industry grow.

Miller and Chris Burgess, the operations manager of Two Bears Farm, said they are frustrated that under the new state bill, inspectors can search the farm and the property for evidence of marijuana.

“The bottom half of my house is storage. Where do they think they get off thinking they can violate my Fourth Amendment rights?” said Miller, referring to the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The hemp industry is already a difficult one to enter, especially when there is no federal financial protection if farmers lose their crop, Miller said. Hemp was removed as a Schedule 1 drug, listed with cocaine and other harmful drugs, but it is still considered an illicit drug by the federal government.

“In that way, Colorado farmers still have an edge,” Miller said because the industry has been around longer.

He said the law is a slight backward step for Colorado, but this “has to happen federally.”

In the future, the bill will allow farmers to sell hemp that tests high for THC to a marijuana processor, but the USDA also has to permit it first.

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