Colorado farmers harvest industrial hemp despite federal prohibition

Finished hemp, marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin, is legal in the US, but growing it remains off-limits under federal law

Colorado Hemp

Volunteer walks through a hemp field at a farm in Colorado during the first known harvest of industrial hemp in the US since the 1950s. Photo: P Solomon Banda/AP

Ryan Loflin, a farmer from southeast Colorado, tried an illegal crop this year. He didn’t hide it from neighbors, and he was never afraid that law enforcement would come asking about it. Loflin is among about two dozen Colorado farmers who raised industrial hemp, marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin that cannot be grown under federal drug law, bringing in the nation’s first acknowledged crop in more than five decades.

Emboldened by voters in Colorado and Washington last year giving the green light to both marijuana and industrial hemp production, Loflin planted 55 acres of several varieties of hemp alongside his typical alfalfa and wheat crops. The hemp came in sparse and scraggly this month, but Loflin said he is still turning away buyers.

“Phone’s been ringing off the hook,” said Loflin, who plans to press the seeds into oil and sell the fibrous remainder to buyers who will use it in building materials, fabric and rope. “People want to buy more than I can grow.”

Hemp’s prospects, however, are far from certain. Finished hemp is legal in the US, but growing it remains off-limits under federal law. The Congressional Research Service recently noted wildly differing projections about hemp’s economic potential.

However, America is one of hemp’s fastest-growing markets, with imports largely coming from China and Canada. In 2011, the US imported $11.5m worth of hemp products, up from $1.4m in 2000. Most of that is hemp seed and hemp oil, which finds its way into granola bars, soaps, lotions and even cooking oil. Whole Foods Market now sells hemp milk, hemp tortilla chips and hemp seeds coated in dark chocolate.

Colorado will nt start granting hemp-cultivation licenses until 2014, but Loflin didn’t wait. His confidence got a boost in August, when the US Department of Justice said the federal government would generally defer to state marijuana laws as long as states kept marijuana away from children and drug cartels. The memo did not mention hemp as an enforcement priority for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I figured they have more important things to worry about than, you know, rope,” a smiling Loflin said as he hand-harvested 4ft plants on his Baca County land.

Colorado’s hemp experiment may not be unique for long. Ten states now have industrial hemp laws that conflict with federal drug policy, including one signed by California Governor Jerry Brown last month. And it’s not just the typical marijuana-friendly suspects: Kentucky, North Dakota and West Virginia have industrial hemp laws on the books.

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