Groundwork Laid, Growers Turn to Hemp in Colorado

Discussion in 'Cannabis Activism' started by DdC, Sep 23, 2013.

  1. DdC

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    Matthew Staver for The New York Times

    “I’m not going to hide anymore,” said Ryan Loflin, who sowed hemp on his 60 acres in Springfield, Colo. The state has a hemp commission to write rules.

    By JACK HEALY August 5, 2013

    SPRINGFIELD, Colo. — Along the plains of eastern Colorado, on a patch of soil where his father once raised alfalfa, Ryan Loflin is growing a leafy green challenge to the nation’s drug laws.

    As part of regulation, Colorado will be able to randomly test hemp crops to ensure that they have only trace amounts of THC, a chemical in marijuana.

    Ryan Loflin and other hemp farmers walk a precarious line, as the state said it would not authorize planting until next year.

    His fields are sown with hemp, a tame cousin of marijuana that was once grown openly in the United States but is now outlawed as a controlled substance. Last year, as Colorado voters legalized marijuana for recreational use, they also approved a measure laying a path for farmers like Mr. Loflin, 40, to once again grow and harvest hemp, a potentially lucrative crop that can be processed into goods as diverse as cooking oil, clothing and building material. This spring, he became the first farmer in Colorado to publicly sow his fields with hemp seed.

    “I’m not going to hide anymore,” he said one recent morning after striding through a sea of hip-high plants growing fast under the sun.

    Mr. Loflin’s 60-acre experiment is one of an estimated two dozen small hemp plantings sprouting in Colorado. Hemp cultivation presents a vexing problem for the federal government, which draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana, as it decides how to respond to a new era of legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington State.

    State agencies have worked quickly to create new rules, licenses and taxes for hemp and recreational marijuana. Many towns have voted to ban the new retailers; others have decided to regulate them. Denver, for example, is proposing a 5 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.

    Colorado has set up an industrial hemp commission to write rules to register hemp farmers and charge them a fee to grow the crop commercially.

    “It’s something that can be copied and used nationally,” said Michael Bowman, a farmer in northeastern Colorado who sits on the state hemp commission. “We’re trying to build a legitimate industry.”

    The state will also be able to randomly test crops to ensure that they contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, far below the level found in marijuana.

    Opponents say that hemp and marijuana are essentially the same plant and that both contain the same psychoactive substance. But supporters say that comparing hemp with potent strains of marijuana is like comparing a nonalcoholic beer with a bottle of vodka.

    Still, farmers and marijuana advocates worry: will drug agents stand on the sidelines and allow Colorado and Washington to pursue their own experiments with legalization? Or will the federal government crack down to assert its authority over drug policies?

    A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Denver said hemp farmers were “not on our radar,” but R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Obama administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, has offered stern words against both marijuana and hemp, saying that no matter what states did, the plants were still illegal in the federal government’s view.

    “Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant,” Mr. Kerlikowske wrote in response to a 2011 petition that sought to legalize hemp cultivation. “While most of the THC in cannabis plants is concentrated in the marijuana, all parts of the plant, including hemp, can contain THC, a Schedule I controlled substance.”

    Lately, hemp has been tiptoeing toward the agricultural mainstream, gaining support from farmers’ trade groups and a wide array of politicians in statehouses and in Washington. In the Republican-controlled House, a provision tucked into the farm bill would let universities in hemp-friendly states grow small plots for research.

    A handful of states, from liberal Vermont to conservative North Dakota and Kentucky, have voted to allow commercial hemp. In Vermont, any farmers who want to register as hemp growers under a new state program have to sign a form acknowledging that they risk losing their agricultural subsidies, farm equipment and livelihoods if federal agents decide to swoop in.

    Every year, the federal authorities seize and destroy millions of marijuana plants — a crackdown that has rattled the medical marijuana industry in California — but the pace of seizures has dropped sharply in recent years. In 2012, federal officials reported that 3.9 million cannabis plants had been destroyed under D.E.A. eradication efforts. A year earlier, officials said they had eradicated 6.7 million plants.

    Beyond the risk of federal raids and seizures, Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, said the market for hemp goods is still vanishingly small and questioned whether it could really be a panacea for farmers.

    “Hemp is the redheaded stepchild of marijuana policy, and probably for good reason,” said Mr. Sabet, who is now the director of the Drug Policy Institute. “In a world with finite capacity to handle drug problems, my advice would be for people to think less about an insignificant issue like hemp and more about the very real issues of drug addiction, marijuana commercialization and glamorization, and how to make our policies work better.”

    Even without the threat of federal raids, transforming hemp into a cash crop will be like asking a clear sky for rain. Viable seeds are illegal and scarce. Few working farmers or experts in the United States have any expertise in growing hemp. And there is basically no infrastructure to process the plants into legal components like oil, fibers and proteins.

    In Colorado, Jason Lauve, the executive director of Hemp Cleans, an advocacy group, said he has spoken with about two dozen small farmers and landowners who are cautiously growing their first hemp crops.

    “We’re really walking gently,” Mr. Lauve said. “We don’t want to put people at risk. We want to see how much states’ rights really protect us, versus the jurisdiction of the federal government.”

    Even here, farmers like Mr. Loflin are walking a precarious line. Although Colorado voters opened the door to hemp farming last year, the state warned would-be hemp farmers in May that they would not be authorized to plant until early in 2014.

    But this spring, Mr. Loflin decided it was time. For years, he had read about how hemp could replenish undernourished soil and be woven and squeezed into a wide array of products. He drinks a shot of hemp oil for his health every day — “It tastes kind of like grass” — and believes the plant could one day lift the fortunes of struggling small farmers.

    He spent the winter assembling a seed collection from suppliers in Britain, Canada, China and Germany, where hemp is legal. They entered the country via U.P.S., labeled “bird seed” or “toasted hemp seed.” One bag was seized by customs officials, he said. Some 1,500 pounds of seeds were not.

    At the end of June, with more than $15,000 invested in the venture, he planted his crop. He said he alerted his neighbors and has not gotten any complaints from people around Springfield, or from federal officials.

    When Mr. Loflin visits the farm from his home in western Colorado, he half-expects to see D.E.A. cars racing down Highway 160 to burn down his crop before harvest. But he believes he can stake a living in hemp’s oily seeds and versatile fibers. He has gotten tired of his day job building ski homes in the mountains. To him, hemp’s outlaw status is just another hazard of starting a business.

    “It’s well worth the risk,” he said. “It’s hemp. Come on, it just needs to be done.”

    NYTimes

    A version of this article appeared in print on August 6, 2013, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Groundwork Laid, Growers Turn to Hemp in Colorado.

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    Why Colorado Is Leading the Country as a Future Hemp Producer
    By Doug Fine / AlterNet September 5, 2013


    A series of happy accidents are behind the upcoming commercial hemp industry in Colorado.

    The following is an installment of Doug Fine's weekly column, Drug Peace Bumblebee.

    I met the gray-haired, dignified Parker (and these qualities are important, as we’ll see), at the Aug. 1, 2013 official hemp flag-hoisting above the Colorado statehouse in Denver. The matriarch of hemp in the Rocky Mountain State was beaming here in the city where she lives and has worked for decades as a Yellow Pages directory sales rep.

    “Farmers are planting, I consider this achieving the goal,” she told me.

    What I discovered from the love Parker was being shown by the comparatively latter-day hemp activists that day at the statehouse was that Colorado’s farmers and entrepreneurs are leading the U.S. into the billion-dollar world industrial cannabis industry because of this single human being. It all happened because when Parker retired in 2005, she took a year off to decide what she wanted to do with her life. She knew only that “environmental values” comprised her criteria.

    “I remember where I was when it came to me clear as day,” Parker told me as state police hoisted the flag made from the same material Betsy Ross used for the first American flag. “It was hemp in neon letters. Hemp was the biggest difference I could make for the planet as an individual.”

    The now 63-year-old grandmother had no previous lobbying experience of any kind. And yet if this industry takes off as predicted (Canada can’t plant new hemp acreage fast enough to keep up with demand), there will be buildings named after her one day. That’s because, unlike Kentucky and Ohio, Colorado doesn’t have a traditional hemp industry.

    “This is about rescuing wheat and corn farmers who are losing their soil due to monoculture ad climate change,” she told me. “About a modern cash crop in an expanding area for our agriculture industry.”

    Parker’s backstory—and Colorado’s hemp headstart over the rest of the U.S.—reads like a Choose Your Own Adventurenovel. If a series of crucial happy accidents hadn’t happened, hemp cultivation wouldn’t be taking off in the state full bore in 2014 (regardless of federal law). To name one, 10 years before her post-retirement hemp catharsis, in 1996, Parker took a political science course and just happened to be assigned to cover the nation’s first modern hemp legalization bill (sponsored by Colorado State Senator Lloyd Casey, it failed to make it out of committee).

    “Had I not taken that course, I would not be talking to you today, and this hemp flag wouldn’t be flying above the capital,” she said. In other words, hemp would probably not be legal in Colorado.

    From the class she learned how the legislative branch of government works. She used that knowledge a decade later, in 2006, when she spearheaded her first hemp initiative.

    “The first thing I did was call my friend (Colorado state rep.) Suzanne Williams (D-South Aurora). I gave Suzanne my poli-sci class final paper, and asked, Can we revisit this issue?” She said, I think we should. She became my champion, introduced me around, put me in touch with not just elected officials, but the amazing and effective sustainability activist Mike Bowman. We pounded the hallways seemingly in vain for years. It was a lonely time.”

    Mark these works carefully, ye who hath given up on representative democracy: after those few years of blank stares and giggles, Parker changed the hemp laws in a big state, in a time of supposed corporate control of government, nearly alone. She had no political experience. Her secrets?

    “I love what I do, I dress conservatively, and I don’t give up.”

    Not that she didn’t consider giving up, more than once.

    “Oh, I told friends several times this is hopeless and nothing’s ever going to move through the lgislature on hemo. But Suzanne, Mike and I kept prodding and poking around to see where we could get an opening.”

    An early opening came from north of the border.

    “The Canadian consulate’s agriculture people in Denver were very helpful,” Parker told me. “By allowing us to use their conference room for meetings, they legitimized us. And they provided us with a huge amount of information about the hemp industry, which was really taking off for them. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police conferenced with Colorado law enforcement, telling them they had no problems with their industry. Zero. That helped get our law enforcement on board very early, which has proven very helpful.”

    Still, Parker spent most of her time during those first years answering “can I smoke my drapes?” jokes from legislators.

    “It was frustrating—bills always dying in committee,” she said. “But we’d get little bursts of momentum, and by 2010 we were having serious conversations. I realized we were seeing a shift in the consciousness. We had educated the legislature.”

    That year Colorado passed a resolution in support of hemp legalization that went out to the White House and Attorney General Eric Holder. “It was toothless, of course,” she said of that first victory. “But it stated the real issues farmers are facing—water shortages, debt, and the truth about hemp as a soil restorer and cash crop.”

    Was Parker’s age and buttoned-down sales experience an asset? “I don’t think there’s any question,” she said, her hair prim and her sweater buttoned. “I am a mainstream face for hemp. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than a gray-haired lady who sells Yellow Pages advertising. No one was threatened by me.”

    Hemp’s first actual legislative victory in Colorado came in 2012. With the help of activists Jason Lauvre and Erik Hunter, Parker’s posse saw unanimous passage of a hemp phyto-remediation (soil restoration) bill, HB12-1099. Then came another huge unexpected boost, a chapter in the Colorado Hemp Choose Your Own Adventure.

    “Years ago,” Parker explained. “I had told Brian Vicente (one of the leaders of the successful Amendment 64 voter initiative that legalized all forms of cannabis in Colorado in November 2012) that I didn’t want to be active in the psychoactive side, since legislators were just starting to understand hemp. And yet he still included hemp in that initiative. I bow down to him in thanks for that whenever I see him.”

    To codify the will of the people on that count, the legislature, again with near-unanimity (one senator thought the bill too restrictive) passed a bill on May 24, 2013 that will allow commercial cultivation of hemp in Colorado regardless of federal law. State officials plan to have hemp cultivation guidelines in place for the 2014 season, regardless of federal law, and several farmers have told me they will be planting.

    “A big part of why the state moved so fast is Colorado farmers said we’re doing it,” Parker told me. “They don’t need DEA approval.” As for federal legalization of hemp nationwide, she said, “The momentum is utterly unstoppable.”

    So what’s the message for activists in any cause? Parker had so many suggestions, it was as though she had waited her whole life for the question.

    “There has to be that level of maturity,” she began. “Include the people you think will resist. Most of the time your supposed enemies just don’t understand. Always take the high road, no matter how weird it gets—and it gets weird in politics. And most of all, try to have fun along the way. Looking back on it, I can truly say it’s been totally fun.”

    Ya know, nearly single-handedly creating what looks to be a billion-dollar industry for your state’s farmers. Not a bad thing to check off one’s bucket list.

    AlterNet

    Doug Fine is the author of Farewell, My Subaru and Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, as well as a forthcoming book about hemp. His weekly column covers cannabis stories from around the planet. His work is available at dougfine.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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