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Hemp growing legal right now? No, says Colorado Department of Agriculture

Is it legal to grow hemp in Colorado? Like, right now?

That's a complicated question -- and one that the Colorado Department of Agriculture is trying to clear up in a statement issued this week: "Amendment 64 did not authorize the immediate cultivation of hemp. It instead directed the General Assembly to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp. This they have now done."

So can farmers start planting? Not yet.

Ron Carleton, the state's deputy commissioner of agriculture, admits that there's "considerable confusion" about whether pot-centric Amendment 64, approved by voters in November, authorized the immediate growing of hemp, marijuana's sober sister. "We've been getting a lot of questions about, 'What does this mean?' and 'Can I start cultivating now?'" Carleton says.

As noted above, the answer to that second question is "no." Amendment 64 merely directed the state legislature to "enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp" by July 1, 2014. Lawmakers beat that deadline earlier this month when they approved SB 241, a bill that requires the state Department of Agriculture to put in place a process to register hemp farmers by March 1, 2014. Governor John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill into law, though he has not yet done so.

Here's the rest of the department's statement, which quotes Carleton:

"This legislation delegates to the Department the responsibility for establishing registration and inspection regulations and to have the rules finalized by March 1, 2014. The bill also creates an advisory committee to help the Department in developing the regulations. The measure is now awaiting action by Governor John Hickenlooper," [Carleton says].

"Once SB13-241 becomes law, we will begin the rulemaking process, working in consultation with the advisory committee. While we will work diligently to complete this process as quickly as possible, it is unlikely that we will have rules setting up a registration and inspection system in place until early 2014.

"The General Assembly ... has made it clear that cultivation, for either commercial or research and development purposes, is not authorized unless the prospective grower first registers with the Department. That will not be possible until early 2014 as we do not expect the registration program to be in place before then."

Individuals with questions concerning the upcoming rulemaking process may contact the Colorado Department of Agriculture at (303) 239-4100.

Continue for more on the confusion around growing hemp.

Part of the confusion involves a groundbreaking hemp phytoremediation study approved by lawmakers in 2012. The purpose of the ten-year study is to test whether industrial hemp can remove pollutants, such as metals and pesticides, from contaminated soil in order to make it "more conducive to crop production." The law authorizing the study specifies that the hemp is to be grown at a "secure, indoor growing site."

Feral hemp growing wild in Nebraska.
Feral hemp growing wild in Nebraska.

SB 241 expands the state's hemp-studying possibilities by allowing farmers to grow up to ten acres outdoors "for research and development purposes." However, farmers wanting to study how hemp grows outside will have to wait to plant any until the Department of Agriculture registration process is in place, just like everybody else. Some farmers and advocates were initially confused; they believed (and therefore, we reported) that farmers wishing to grow hemp for research purposes could now do so because SB 241 had expanded the phytoremediation study to allow them to plant outdoors.

Sam Walsh, a lobbyist who worked on SB 241, credits the confusion to "the earnestness of a lot of these farmers who've been economically destitute for the last ten years [and who] want to immediately jump on an opportunity presented to them. But we have to make sure this is done correctly. While we're sympathetic and we understand, we don't want people to jeopardize themselves or put themselves in harm's way."

Especially since hemp is still illegal at the federal level. The Controlled Substances Act classifies both hemp and marijuana -- collectively referred to in the law as Cannabis sativa -- as Schedule I drugs. Thus far, the feds have been silent on how they'll react to cannabis growth in states that have legalized it.

The next step is for Hickenlooper to sign SB 241. Once that happens, the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees will appoint nine members to the committee; they'll be tasked with helping the Department of Agriculture create a hemp-farming registration process. The bill specifies that farmers wishing to grow hemp must submit an application that includes the GPS coordinates and a map of the land on which they plan to grow. They would also be required to pay a fee, to verify that their crop would have a THC concentration of no more than three-tenths of 1 percent and demonstrate that they have "entered into a purchase agreement with an in-state industrial hemp producer."

Advocates stress that even though it will likely be another year before farmers can plant vast commercial fields of industrial hemp, Colorado is still on the leading edge of the movement to resurrect a once-popular source of fiber and food. For his part, Carleton admits that the department, in being directed to regulate the state's impending hemp industry, is "in uncharted territory here, to some extent."

"We want to get this right," he says. "We want to make sure we have a...good program [that] helps promote and provide for cultivation and inspection of industrial hemp."

More from our Follow That Story archives: "Top ten hemp legends: Which are true -- and which went up in smoke?"

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com