Can hemp escape the role of marijuana's sober stepsister?
George Washington loved hemp.
Our nation's first president thought so much of the plant that he once famously wrote to his gardener, "Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere."
But Washington's interests didn't lie in smoking hemp, marijuana's less famous cousin. A variety of Cannabis sativa that contains little to none of the psychoactive ingredient THC, hemp is good for almost anything except getting you high: you can eat it, wear it, wash yourself with it and build your house out of it. It's strong, nutritious and naturally pest-resistant.
In the United States, hemp is also illegal.
More than two centuries after Washington's domestic decree, the hemp seed is being sown nowhere. Depending on whom you ask, it was either collateral damage in the war against drugs, the target of a vast capitalist conspiracy to suppress the super-crop, or the loser in a competition with new technologies and cheaper imports. Whatever the cause, the effect was that the versatile hemp plant disappeared from America's agricultural map in the late 1950s. In the decades that followed, the federal government made sure it didn't grow back by classifying the squeaky-clean look-alike as sinful marijuana and forbidding farmers to grow it.
But when voters legalized retail sales of recreational marijuana last November, a single sentence in the otherwise pot-centric Amendment 64 also made it lawful to grow hemp. That doesn't mean that a hemp industry will sprout overnight, however. While recreational marijuana can lean on the infrastructure currently in place for medical pot, hemp has virtually no road map.
What it does have is a merry band of hempsters, a small but dedicated group of supporters that includes a retired Yellow Pages saleswoman, a self-described mad scientist, the victorious defendant in one of Colorado's landmark medical marijuana cases and a handful of stone-cold sober lawmakers who represent the type of places where people have dirt under their fingernails and make their living off the land. Together, this group is determined to create a hemp industry and position the state at the leading edge of an agricultural boom.
Jason Lauve, the medical cannabis defendant and the most poetic of the bunch, has a vivid dream of the world he'd like to live in. Paraphrasing a national hemp advocate, he says, "I wake up in bed in the morning on my hemp sheets, on my hemp mattress, on my hemp bed frame, and I put my hemp slippers on, and I walk across my hemp carpet." He brushes his teeth with hemp toothpaste, puts on his hemp clothes and gets into his hemp car, which burns hemp fuel. His dream world contains fewer chemicals, fewer synthetic materials, fewer landfills than the real one.
"The air is going to be cleaner," he says. "We're going to be healthier people."
The hemp plant is steeped in lore, and many advocates fancy themselves cannabis historians. Hemp most likely originated in southeast Asia more than 10,000 years ago. In the early seventeenth century, King James of England ordered colonists in the New World to plant the crop, which grows tall and skinny like bamboo and has the same notorious leaves as pot. Hemp was prized as a source of fiber with which to make durable ropes and ship sails, clothing and other textiles. Hemp seeds were used as health food, and hemp oil was excellent for burning in lamps and making into paint. Legend has it that the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag from hemp fabric.
By the 1930s, however, hemp production had dwindled. Even Kentucky, which had emerged as the country's most prolific hemp producer, had largely abandoned the crop due to the rise of cheap imports and man-made fibers. Colorado hemp advocates believe that the nation's biggest capitalists were afraid that hemp would soon make a comeback, though, so they worked together with anti-marijuana crusaders to effectively wipe out both plants.
In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which required growers and sellers of cannabis to pay a tax and obtain a permit from the government. But very few permits were granted — and the cost of dealing in cannabis without one was severe.
"It all started in the early 1900s with five robber barons," says Erik Hunter, the self-described mad scientist, who has been familiar with hemp since he was a child, growing up in farm country where it grew wild. The robber barons, he says, included newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and the leaders of the DuPont company, who feared that a hemp resurgence would compete with wood-pulp paper and the newly invented nylon.
This theory, made popular by activist Jack Herer in his 1985 book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, posits that the capitalists teamed up with Harry Anslinger, head of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to pass the Marihuana Tax Act. "It was crony capitalism and greed which outlawed the plant," says Hunter, a 43-year-old former real-estate broker and father of four who's earning a Ph.D. in mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.
Others discount the idea of such an overt conspiracy, contending instead that hemp's downfall was simply an unintended by-product of an effort to outlaw marijuana.
This much is undisputed: After a brief government-backed resurgence during World War II, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to grow the crop "as part of the war program" after the country's supply of imported fibers was cut off by the Japanese, hemp production fell off until it was non-existent. Then, in 1970, the Marihuana Tax Act gave way to the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies both hemp and pot — collectively referred to in the law as Cannabis sativa — as Schedule I drugs and therefore highly illegal.
About thirty years later, North Dakota rebelled. After watching Canada legalize hemp in 1998, the North Dakota legislature passed a state law in 1999 to do the same; it didn't seem fair that farmers across the border could grow it and profit from it when North Dakota couldn't.
Seven states, including Colorado, have since done the same thing, according to Vote Hemp, a national nonprofit that advocates for industrial hemp. But so far, no farmers in any of these states have dared to violate the federal law that still prohibits hemp farming.
"None of the states have taken a confrontational approach," says Vote Hemp president Eric Steenstra. "They're just prepared to take advantage when the federal law changes."
Hunter remembers thinking as a child that it was odd that hemp was forbidden. He grew up in Missouri, where his dad owned a piece of land that he leased to a farmer to grow soybeans and wheat. "I used to go there on the weekends with my dad, and we'd go target shooting and camp out," Hunter says. "And the place was overgrown with hemp."
The so-called ditchweed was wild, probably the feral descendant of hemp grown for the war effort. Hunter pulls out a photograph that shows a much younger version of himself standing in a field thick with lush green plants, the tops of which tower above him. "My dad and his friends would joke about it," he says. "They knew it was technically illegal to have it growing there, but the cops knew it was there, and they didn't care because they either had tried smoking it in high school or knew someone who had tried smoking it."
To a young Hunter, it made more sense to outlaw poison ivy. In college, he read Herer's book, which made him more frustrated about the plant's fate. But he didn't give it much more thought until 2009, when Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued a memo declaring that the federal government wouldn't go after law-abiding medical marijuana patients.
"I thought, 'Wow, finally after all this time, the legalization thing is really kicking in, and it's time to get on it,'" Hunter says. Two years later, he connected with Lynda Parker, the retiree whose website, NewAgHempEconomy.com, has become a clearinghouse for hemp-heads.
Today, hemp is grown in several other countries, including Canada, China and England, and imported into the U.S. The Hemp Industries Association, a California-based trade group, estimates that at least $500 million worth of hemp products were sold here in 2012. A big chunk of the market is foods such as non-dairy hemp milk and "hemp hearts," soft-textured seeds that can be sprinkled onto salads or yogurt and contain healthy doses of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Companies such as Patagonia make durable shirts and pants from hemp, while BMW uses a hemp composite in its car door panels. A U.K. company has developed a building material made of hemp and lime called Hemcrete that's naturally insulating and resistant to mold. Hemp is also used to make body-care products, protein powders and animal bedding.
Advocates and hemp retailers describe the plant as a viable food and fiber alternative and praise hemp for its versatility. One of its major selling points is that it's environmentally friendly: Hemp has a small carbon footprint and moderate water requirements, and it needs few pesticides, if any.
But importing hemp is costly for companies such as Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which was founded in California in 1948. Dr. Bronner's imports more than $100,000 of hemp oil annually from Canada, which legalized the crop in 1998 and is predicted to grow 70,000 acres this year.
"We should be able to grow it here and purchase it nationally," says Christina Volgyesi, Dr. Bronner's marketing director. "This isn't new. We used to grow hemp; we figured it out at one point. This was a crop that was viable. It's just our recent history where we've forgotten."
Lynda Parker pads around her luxury condo near City Park holding a cordless phone to her ear with one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. It's 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and her short white hair is already carefully coiffed. "It's really the most useful crop on the planet," she's telling Trent Loos, a radio host in Nebraska who deals with rural issues on his nationally syndicated program. "I just see this as an enormous economic opportunity for this country."
Parker was working as a sales representative for U.S. West's Yellow Pages when she first became interested in hemp in 1996. She took a political science course at the University of Colorado at Denver that required her to follow a bill through the state legislature. Searching for an interesting one, she came across a bill introduced by then-state senator Lloyd Casey that would have legalized hemp in Colorado. At the time, she didn't understand the difference between hemp and marijuana — but either way, she figured the debate would be lively.
She was right. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration came out against it. But a seed had been planted in Parker's head, so after retiring ten years later, she decided to look into the issue again, especially since many people feel that hemp is an environmentally friendly renewable natural resource.
"I thought, 'Okay, if the environment is what I care about, what is the one single thing that I can do on my own, aside from my own daily decisions like paper-or-plastic, that can have the most impact?'" Parker says. "And I knew that I had to get behind hemp."
So with the same friendly persuasiveness that made her a good saleswoman, she threw herself into hemp, learning about its varied uses, its history and its legal struggles. Through a contact at the Canadian consulate in Denver, Parker began holding informational sessions for legislators and law enforcement about Canada's success with the crop.
She volunteered in the office of then-state senator Suzanne Williams, whom she'd met years earlier when they were both part of the anti-war group Beyond War, to learn more about how the State Capitol works. She also traveled to Canada to see their industry up close.
Part of what makes Parker such a convincing spokeswoman is that the 63-year-old grandmother is exactly the opposite of whom you'd expect to be singing the praises of a plant that is almost always associated with pot. "I'm not coming from the marijuana side," she explains. "My counterpart in New Mexico says, 'I looked at your picture on your website, and you look like Miss Chamber of Commerce,'" Parker says. "Works for me."
In 2010, Parker and Williams decided to draft a bill to put in place simple regulations for Colorado farmers to grow hemp, but their timing was off. Colorado was undergoing a medical marijuana dispensary boom, and lawmakers were scrambling to regulate the industry. Amid that reefer madness, Williams realized that the hemp issue would be lost or misunderstood.
Instead of a bill, they settled for a resolution — a series of "whereas"-es defining hemp as cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC and declaring that it should never have been banned in the first place. Hemp, the resolution says, is "a versatile and valuable agricultural commodity" that can be "dry-land farmed" and has the potential to create new jobs. The resolution didn't change any laws, but urged Congress to remove barriers to farming hemp.
But Williams and Parker weren't the only ones interested in hemp. In October 2011, Lauve, the medical marijuana activist, got curious about Occupy Denver and decided to set up a tent with the protestors. He happened to pitch it right next to former state representative and agricultural champion Wes McKinley, who was also supporting the Occupy movement.
By then, Lauve was already famous in certain circles for having been the first medical marijuana patient in Colorado to be acquitted of pot possession charges. Lauve uses cannabis to relieve pain from a 2004 skiing accident that broke his back. In 2008, the police raided his house and found more than two pounds of weed. But in August 2009, a jury found him not guilty, concluding that Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in Colorado, allows medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to determine how much cannabis is medically necessary.
A bearded 42-year-old with a shy smile, Lauve says the trial changed his life in good and bad ways. The public exposure caused him to lose his home and his job as a graphic-design professor, but it also encouraged him to start Cannabis Health News magazine. "The fear has been ripped away," he says, "and honestly...it's the DEA, it's the federal government, that turned me into who I am today — just like any other person who realizes we can make a difference."
At Occupy, Lauve discussed hemp with McKinley, a rancher whose political career got started after he served as foreman on the grand jury that famously examined the Rocky Flats plutonium trigger-making plant near Boulder. "I talked about how Chernobyl had demonstrated that hemp could absorb heavy metal toxins," Lauve says. "That has always interested me, and knowing that hemp has a very high resistance to frost and drought" made the plant seem even more attractive. Two weeks later, McKinley invited Lauve to his office.
"So I roll in, and there are two attorneys and his assistants...and he's like, 'Okay, we're going to write a bill today,'" Lauve says.
The bill authorizes a ten-year pilot program to study whether industrial hemp could remove pollutants, such as metals and pesticides, from contaminated soil and water in order to make the soil "more conducive to crop production." It specifies that the hemp for the study is to be grown at a "secure, indoor growing site" and tasks a seven-member committee with writing a final report to include how quickly the hemp plants sucked up the contamination, where in the plant the contaminants settled, and how best to dispose of those plants.
Lauve testified in favor of the bill, as did Parker, who'd met McKinley in 2008 through an acquaintance who thought the lawmaker might be interested in hemp; they also brought in Hunter, who gave scientific testimony about the benefits of using crops to clean soil. The lawmakers had a lot of questions. How do you know that hemp will actually clean the soil? How much water does this so-called wonder crop need? Does eating hemp get you high? What if a teenager tries to smoke the stuff? And, most important, is growing hemp legal?
"No," McKinley told the House committee, "but we're not growing it. We're studying it."
The hemp proponents admitted that there wasn't much science on the subject of hemp and pollutants, primarily because no one can grow the crop in the U.S. They explained that eating hemp doesn't get you high, and that if you grow it near marijuana, the hemp will actually cause the pot to go to seed, effectively ruining it. As for the water requirements, Hunter said that Canadian and European data shows that hemp needs twenty inches of rain per year, which isn't much more than parts of Colorado receive.
The bill passed and was signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper on June 4, 2012, five months before Amendment 64 would pave a legal pathway for hemp, making Colorado the first state to authorize a so-called hemp phytoremediation study.
In order to grow it, though, the pilot program needed a laboratory. Enter Ben Holmes, a 48-year-old horticultural wizard and entrepreneur who's been involved in a wide range of ventures, from Internet startups to financial publishing to his latest business, Centennial State Distributors. In a nondescript industrial building in Lafayette, Holmes studies how best to grow cannabis and then shares his expertise with medical marijuana growers for a fee.
"I work on fundamental problems with cultivation," he says, and recommends ways for growers to increase their yields.
Last year, he was at the State Capitol to meet with his state senator on the issue of marijuana seed cultivation when he ran into Senator Williams while waiting for the elevator. The two struck up a conversation, and when he told her why he was there, she told him about her work for hemp — which eventually led to Williams's introducing Holmes to Parker. "I remember telling her, 'I want to be involved,'" Holmes recalls. "The next thing I know, my name was on a list and I was involved."
One of the main obstacles to growing hemp is that there's very little seed available, since the U.S. market has been virtually eliminated. Holmes has a small amount of a few different strains, including an Italian fiber strain and two hemp-oil varieties; the seeds, he says, were given to him as gifts. "There's a very active trading community in seed," he explains.
Holmes is curing the seed so that it will be ready to plant in the spring, when he plans to grow a hemp plot outdoors in order to increase his seed stock. Once he's done that, he'll have enough of a base to do a real phytoremediation study using soil contaminated with gold-mining waste. Hunter has already done a very small-scale study with four plants to see if they would grow in the polluted soil. They did. Hunter and Parker have also collected soil that was scorched by the Colorado wildfires with an eye toward testing whether hemp will grow in it.
While Holmes says he's not blind to the legal risks of growing cannabis, he believes it can be done in a way that's respectful and won't attract attention. "I'm concerned with how we can utilize this crop," he says. "It's hard to impeach someone for being honest and curious."
Holmes isn't being paid for his work with hemp. He sees it as a "citizen effort," a way to help the greater cannabis cause. But there could be something in it for him, too. Eventually, he hopes to sell the seeds he develops directly to farmers and home gardeners through a retail store. "I'm interested in developing good, clean seed strains," he says.
And soon, thanks to Amendment 64, cannabis seeds could be in high demand.
Hemp was almost an afterthought in the drafting of Amendment 64.
For six months, a committee met weekly to carefully craft the language that would end up on voters' ballots. "The process was very intensive," says medical marijuana attorney Brian Vicente, one of the amendment's primary authors. "Every word was debated."
But none of those words had to do with hemp. In fact, there weren't even any hemp advocates on the committee, a circumstance Vicente attributes to the laser-focus on marijuana. "It was almost haphazard when we said, 'We've done all this work on marijuana. What should we do about hemp?' No one really had any ideas."
So Vicente created a very general clause that requires lawmakers to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp by July 1, 2014 — a year after the state must start issuing licenses for recreational pot shops.
And just like that, hemp was on its way to becoming legal.
But proponents of the crop don't want to wait until 2014. In February, they asked the Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force to recommend that the legislature act in 2013 instead. They have an ally in Democratic state senator Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. In a letter to task-force members, she wrote that hemp is "primarily an agricultural issue" and that she's working on a bill that would create a committee of stakeholders to advise the state Department of Agriculture on developing regulations and registering farmers to grow hemp.
The task force, which has its hands plenty full with weed, readily agreed.
Ron Carleton, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, says those regulations will make hemp unique among Colorado crops in that similar rules for corn or wheat don't exist. "While hemp is certainly different from marijuana, in the federal eyes, it isn't," says Carleton, who serves on the task force. "Given the nature of what we're dealing with here, we do have to establish some rules and procedures and monitor things closely."
Schwartz plans to introduce her bill in the next few weeks. It would also expand the phytoremediation study to allow farmers to plant up to ten acres of hemp right away in order to research how well it grows outdoors in Colorado and other factors. The farmers who participate could also generate seed stock and test the feasibility of getting crop insurance from private insurance companies since federal crop insurance is unlikely.
"I represent seven counties in western and southern Colorado with a lot of agriculture," Schwartz says of her reasoning for sponsoring the bill. "Is there an opportunity here? I think it's worth exploring. We have a situation whereby Colorado could be uniquely positioned to be competitive in this area should this prove to be marketable, profitable."
On March 20, local hemp advocates will visit the Capitol to speak to lawmakers about the crop. The following day, hemp bigwigs from the United States and Canada plan to gather in Loveland for a symposium hosted by the Hemp Industries Association. Topics on the agenda include how hemp is grown and processed, the state of the market for hemp, and what farmers who are interested in growing the crop can realistically expect. Steenstra, who is also the executive director of the association, says no one should expect hemp to become a billion-dollar industry anytime soon.
"I think there's the potential to grow it, make some money, do some economic development and create jobs if hemp is grown, but I don't think it's at that level," says Steenstra, who is slated to speak at the symposium. "I don't think one state is going to be able to turn it into a billion-dollar industry." Especially given the many challenges that still lie ahead.
One of the biggest roadblocks is the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. At the federal level, a permit from the DEA is still required to grow hemp, but the agency has rejected every applicant in recent memory with one exception: In 1999 it allowed researchers in Hawaii to plant a quarter-acre plot, provided they surrounded it with a ten-foot razor-wire fence and monitored it with a security system. That permit has since expired, and efforts to renew it were bogged down by administrative delays — or what the main researcher called "the DEA's shenanigans."
Most states that have legalized hemp require farmers to first seek a DEA permit to grow it. North Dakota repealed that requirement in 2007, after two farmers who applied for permits as test cases weren't granted them. Those farmers then sued the DEA, but the court punted, ruling that the question of whether farmers should be allowed to grow hemp belonged in Congress.
Amendment 64 also doesn't require Colorado farmers to seek federal approval before growing hemp. But that doesn't mean the feds couldn't crack down if they wanted to.
In the past, those who've tried growing the crop without federal permission have had little success. In 2000, for instance, the DEA descended upon an acre-and-a-half hemp field planted on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota by a man named Alex White Plume. The tribal government had allowed White Plume to grow hemp, which it hoped would grow into an industry for the impoverished reservation. The DEA chopped down the plants and burned them.
Instead of pushing their luck, most states that have legalized hemp are working to convince the feds to change their rules. In 2005, Texas congressman Ron Paul introduced the first bill to remove hemp from the federal definition of "marijuana" in the Controlled Substances Act. It failed, but similar bills have been put forward every two years. This year's versions have bipartisan support, including a nod from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As for pot, Colorado Representative Jared Polis is sponsoring a bill to decriminalize marijuana, while Representative Diana DeGette has introduced the Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act, intended to ensure that federal marijuana laws don't preempt Amendment 64 and Washington state's similar measure, which would have positive outcomes for hemp, too.
Special Agent Paul Roach, the spokesman for the Denver Field Division of the DEA, says Amendment 64 doesn't change the way the feds view hemp in Colorado. "Any cannabis plant falls under the Controlled Substances Act, and that's what we enforce," he says. But Roach notes that in his 23 years with the DEA, he's never been involved in a hemp investigation. "We have limited resources, financially and with manpower, and we have to pick and choose what we consider to be the most significant drug-trafficking problems in the area," he explains, "and...I've never heard [anyone] talking about hemp being a significant problem."
But because it's illegal at a federal level, universities that conduct crop research and provide technical assistance to farmers won't touch it. "Although hemp contains only trace amounts of the main hallucinogen found in marijuana, the federal Controlled Substances Act nonetheless defines the entire species as a Schedule I controlled substance," Colorado State University deputy general counsel Jason Johnson says in a statement. "Accordingly, the University is prohibited from providing assistance about hemp production."
Those issues have caused the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union to be hesitant about hemp. "We have enough things to worry about that having a confrontation with the federal government about hemp laws is something our members are not terribly interested in," says Mick McCallister, director of communications for the coalition of family farmers and ranchers.
At least one farmer has decided to forge ahead anyway. Mike Bowman is a 53-year-old farmer-turned-political-activist whose great-great-grandfather homesteaded in Phillips County. Today his family grows corn, wheat and a rotation of niche crops such as sunflowers, shallots and organic alfalfa on land they own in the eastern Colorado city of Wray.
Bowman became obsessed with hemp after reading about North Dakota's long-running fight to grow the crop, among other factors. He met Parker in 2006, when she was referred to him by the Colorado Department of Agriculture; she had called to ask about hemp farming.
"We just clicked," Bowman says. "We said, 'Let's start working on this.'"
Bowman was already involved in politics, having campaigned for Amendment 37, which requires 10 percent of Colorado's retail electricity sales to come from renewable sources by 2015. What was supposed to be a six-month sabbatical from the farm led to Bowman's helping found a national renewable-energy alliance; he now spends much of his time in Washington, D.C., and the rest traveling the country. The farm is still his home base, however.
And he intends to plant one hundred acres of hemp there — hopefully on April 30, the eightieth birthday of longtime hempster Willie Nelson, whom Bowman knows through their shared advocacy for biodiesel and other environmental causes. Bowman is in the process of requesting a permit from the USDA to import hemp seeds, but, he says, it's been a bureaucratic nightmare. "Nobody wants to make the decision," he says. "Everybody thinks it's somebody else's issue."
Bowman sees his planned hemp plot as a type of non-violent resistance. "It's gotta start somewhere. Somebody's got to plant something," he says. "Every time we've had to change something in history that is so wrong — whether it's the civil-rights movement or fill-in-the-blank — it's always taken some acts of civil disobedience from the citizenry."
He's not terribly afraid of being busted by the feds or state law enforcement, partly because he hopes Schwartz's hemp-farming regulation bill will have passed by then. "We're obviously in a gray area here," he admits. But "there's a lot of problems to address here as a nation, and clearly, this isn't a high priority for anybody."
His foray into hemp farming started out as an experiment to provide data about how the crop grows in Colorado. "In a sane world, we would have been testing different strains of this crop under limited irrigation and drought scenarios," he says. But since he's gone public with his plan, Bowman says, he's been approached by a handful of people in the U.S. hemp-products industry who are interested in buying his plants, though he hasn't signed any agreements yet.
The hemp will serve another practical purpose, too: last year, his family farm over-pumped its water allocation due to drought conditions, so it will have to use less water this year. Bowman hopes hemp, which reportedly needs little irrigation, will help them to do so.
"What we want to do is be able to demonstrate that there is an alternative crop out there," he says. "We live in a world where industrial hemp is a Schedule I narcotic and ketchup is considered a vegetable because of what happens inside the bubble of Washington.
Sometimes it takes outsiders and those committed to seeing things change for the better."
Late last year, Parker, Hunter and Lauve banded together in a more official way to run the phytoremediation study. They formed an organization called Hemp Cleans, which has since expanded its purpose into helping launch a hemp industry in Colorado. Their roles are perfectly fitted to their personalities: Parker the saleswoman is the director of public affairs, Hunter the scientist is in charge of research and development, and Lauve is the executive director.
Hemp Cleans doesn't have a budget, but the group has been approached by individuals and companies interested in investing. They also have a volunteer lobbyist named Samantha Walsh and support from businessman Adam Dunn, who serves on the seven-member committee overseeing the phytoremediation study and owns the Hemp HoodLab, a creative space and retail store in the River North neighborhood where he sells hemp clothing made by Hemp HoodLamb, one of three companies that he helped create in Amsterdam before moving to Denver in 2010.
Walsh and Dunn are helping to organize a monthly networking event at the HoodLab called "Hands on Hemp." The first gathering, held in early February, included reggae music, cans of PBR, a hemp paper-making demonstration and a brief legislative update from Walsh.
"You need to start forming coalitions," she told the twenty or so attendees, who included a group from Fort Collins interested in building houses out of hemp materials; a CSU soil and crop sciences student; and the president of Evo Hemp, a Boulder company that makes energy bars with edible (not plantable) hemp seeds imported from Canada.
"It might sound hippie-dippie or like a wide-eyed optimist, but I think this is going to be universally beneficial to the United States and Colorado," Walsh says.
But still there's much work to be done, which is why the three diehards of Hemp Cleans have been traveling to rural Colorado towns to talk hemp, one small group of farmers at a time.
On a snowy Saturday morning in February, they were in Salida, where Senator Schwartz was holding a town hall meeting at a senior center. Toward the end of the meeting, Parker, Hunter and Lauve took the floor, armed with charts, photos and samples of hemp products.
"Essentially, hemp can offer many things," Lauve said. The audience "Ooooh"-ed when he told them that car parts made out of hemp materials are "30 percent stronger than steel and 30 percent lighter" and murmured its approval when he held up a small building block made out of hemp and explained that it was half as heavy as a cinderblock and naturally sound-absorbent. When the presentation was over, the three took questions from the eager crowd.
"We're really excited about this in the San Luis Valley," said a farmer named Matthew Clark, who wore a dusty Colorado baseball cap and clutched a three-ring binder. Inside it was a booklet called Industrial Hemp: Practical Products — Paper to Fabric to Cosmetics that he'd had for twenty years. "I have some land ready to go, and I'm wondering, do you guys consult? What do you offer, a little more specifically? Like how to get started?"
"We'll hold your hand all the way through the process," Lauve told him. And once Schwartz's bill passes, he added, the legal path to growing hemp will become more clear.
And then the serious down-in-the-dirt work of building Colorado's hemp economy — the lofty dream of this unlikely, eclectic, merry little band of hempsters — can truly begin.
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