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Industrial hemp grows on a farm in Montrose County, where there are numerous registered growers cultivating the cousin to marijuana.(William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As Colorado hemp growers ready their fields and greenhouses for an anticipated 120,000-acre crop this year, state policymakers are working on a plan to bypass proposed federal rules that threaten to wither the promise of the state’s hemp industry.

Colorado has had its own successful hemp oversight program for six years, and the Colorado Department of Agriculture would like it to stay in state hands. Hemp — pot’s non-psychoactive cousin — has become a new cash crop, mainly to meet the demand for CBD oil that is extracted from the plants and used in medicinal and cosmetic preparations. 

The problem is that proposed new federal regulations – slated to go into effect after this year’s harvest — could change oversight of hemp in ways that would make administering, harvesting and testing Colorado hemp much more difficult. 

“We’ve been very vocal that Colorado has a lot more knowledge about this than someone sitting in Washington, D.C.,” said state Sen. Don Coram, who has weighed in on the proposed new hemp rules as both a legislator and as a Western Slope hemp grower. “If we follow the regulations as written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there won’t be a hemp crop.”

The leaves a hemp plant sway in the wind at Fern Farms outside of Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The federal rules have come in the wake of the 2018 Farm Bill. That bill legalized hemp for nationwide production. For decades prior to that, hemp was relegated to the same status as marijuana even though it had none of weed’s recreational-high effects. The bill also called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate hemp farming. A possible saving grace for Colorado and other hemp-growing states where the plant has become a viable cash crop is that the Farm Bill gives states the right to weigh in with proposals for their own plans.

That’s where the Colorado agriculture department is now. The department is finalizing a plan after gathering input from nearly 200 stakeholders representing every facet of the hemp industry, from seed to sales. That plan is scheduled to be completed this spring.

MORE: Colorado’s proposed hemp regulations and the potential impact of the proposed federal rules will be discussed at the 2020 Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture Wednesday at the History Colorado Center. There will be three breakout sessions addressing different aspects of the Colorado hemp industry. 

“Basically, we want to keep a lot of things the way they are now,” said Brian Koontz, the state agriculture department’s industrial hemp program manager. “And we want to ensure that Colorado leads the hemp industry in the country.”

The state agriculture department has already submitted comments detailing which parts of what is officially called the Interim Federal Rule could be damaging to Colorado’s growing hemp industry. The legislature has supported those comments with a joint resolution that expresses the fear that “key provisions of the interim rule will raise barriers to entry for small farmers that could prevent this critically important constituency from entering the market.”

Colorado’s input is part of a flood of 4,685 comments nationwide on the proposed federal rules.  

The main changes Colorado’s agricultural community would like to see in the federal rules include:

  • Raising the THC limit for crops considered “negligent violations” to 1% from 0.5%. Negligent violations can result in serious penalties to growers. The state also would like to raise the 0.3% upper limit for THC, the psychoactive ingredient that distinguishes marijuana from hemp, but is not including it in the proposal. Currently, crops that exceed that level must be destroyed.
  • Changing what happens when hemp crops test “hot” – or over the limits. Under current state and proposed federal rules, they must be destroyed. Colorado would like to allow “remediation” of those crops rather than destruction. It is possible to lower the levels of THC in hemp when it is processed.
  • Extending the time window for harvesting once a crop is tested. The federal regulations call for crops to be harvested within 15 days of testing. The state would like to give growers 30 days because most small growers (the majority of those in Colorado) harvest crops by hand and need 30 days to finish.
  • Including programs for research and development, and plant and seed breeding in the new regulations. Currently there are no provisions for what Colorado agriculture officials consider an important piece of growing the hemp industry.
  • Allowing state- or tribe-certified labs to test hemp rather than having to submit all samples to a Drug Enforcement Administration-certified lab as the federal regulations propose. Colorado, with 2,700 registered hemp growers, has no DEA-certified labs testing hemp. Neither do many other states. Only 44 of these labs currently exist in the country to support more than 16,000 licensed hemp farmers. The closest DEA-certified lab to Colorado that is testing hemp is in California.

Coram is particularly unhappy about those parts of the proposed federal regulations that still treat hemp akin to marijuana and other controlled drugs.

“I don’t think the ag department needs to be in the drug business,” he said.

Seasonal laborers weed between rows of hemp plants and Shi Farms in Pueblo. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s efforts have been aimed at treating hemp more like a farm commodity while still satisfying the federal government.

In May, the state began working on an initiative that would position Colorado as a national leader for the hemp industry while hopefully also satisfying federal regulators. The effort, called the Colorado Hemp Advancement & Management Plan, or CHAMP, draws on input from the entire hemp supply chain. That includes research and development, cultivation, testing, transportation, processing, manufacturing, marketing, banking and insurance. Universities and law enforcement were also tapped for input.

The CHAMP report, which will be issued this spring, will include a blueprint with resources covering all aspects of hemp cultivation for the state’s growers. The Colorado blueprint will be a counterpoint to the proposed federal rules.

Nick Coleman of Grand Junction is one of those hemp growers who welcomes the state’s tempering of the proposed federal rules. He has been growing hemp at his Desert Flower Farms for the past three years. He said he knows some small hemp farmers who are hanging it up, but he plans to continue his family’s field-to-shelf operation, in spite of the limbo created by the disparity between the state and federal regulation proposals.

“It’s become a pretty wild ride. Hempin’ ain’t easy,” Coleman said. “But we are the pioneers in the hemp industry. And that’s exciting.”

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 4:47 p.m. on Feb. 25, 2020, to more clearly describe the changes to the proposed federal hemp rules Colorado regulators are requesting.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm