Already known as one of the country's marijuana capitals, Denver is a heavyweight in the hemp industry, too, and that status is on full display at the NoCo Hemp Expo this weekend.
After five years in Loveland, the NoCo Hemp Expo moved to Denver in 2019. The Crowne Plaza DIA's parking lot was packed and its event center bustling on Friday, March 29 — and that was just the industry-only day. The conference is open to the general public today, March 30, with over 220 hemp and CBD vendors peddling everything from hemp clothing and shoes to CBD extraction technology.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis stopped by to check out the action, briefly speaking with attendees before taking a stroll around the expo. Polis sees Colorado as one the country's epicenters for industrial hemp because of its recreational marijuana laws and the state Department of Agriculture's hemp program, which has allowed farmers to grow hemp in Colorado for over five years.
Colorado led the nation in acreage devoted to hemp farming in 2017 and 2018, but the governor stressed the need for more innovation and new businesses now that hemp farming was made legal federally by the 2018 Farm Bill.
"Helping to grow the industrial hemp industry is really a focus of our administration," he said. "We're already here with an established licensing program for hemp production...but why Colorado anymore? We already have leading hemp manufacturers and producers."
Polis even helped a fellow elected official in the crowd, as Wisconsin state senator Lena Taylor peppered him with earnest questions about implementing a hemp licensing program. According to Taylor, Wisconsin is currently struggling to create an industrial hemp farming program, and it's not alone.
Although Colorado and a handful of other states had hemp research and pilot programs in place as early as 2014 under a previous version of the Farm Bill, most of the country is new to the table. As the federal Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration start crafting new regulations around hemp farming and CBD products, hemp producers and retailers nationwide worry about how and when they'll be affected.
Loren Israelsen was on the ground level of the dietary supplement industry's rise in the ’90s, and he thinks the hemp and CBD movements will have similar paths forward and face similar obstacles. President of the United Natural Products Alliance, a trade group for dietary supplements, Israelsen pointed to federal legislative acts that legalized hemp and dietary supplements — 2018's Farm Bill and 1994's Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, respectively — and the need to self-police bad actors and snake-oil salesmen out of the business.
"It really looks and feels like our industry twenty years ago," he said. "There's a lot of swimmers in the pool, and some sharks. Some are trying to score, and the others are trying to bite your legs off. The trick is finding out who's who."
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Compass Natural managing director Steven Hoffman works with a long list of natural and hemp product brands, including the NoCo Hemp Expo. With over three decades of agriculture and sustainability experience under his belt, Hoffman believes the way to earn peer and consumer trust is clear: proper certification and labeling.
According to Hoffman, virtually every hemp or CBD product claiming to be organic doesn't have the proper USDA organic label on its packaging. Considering that hemp has been qualified for USDA organic status since 2016, he thinks it's time for companies to put up or shut up.
"Don't just say it," he told a crowd at the expo. "Seal it."
The NoCo Hemp Expo continues through Saturday, March 30; get full details at nocohempexpo.com.