Although technically the same plant genus, marijuana and hemp are grown for two different reasons in Colorado. Marijuana's intoxicating compound, THC, is still banned federally, while hemp is farmed for industrial purposes or extracted for non-intoxicating medicinal compounds, like CBD, as long as the hemp flowers contain less than 0.3 percent THC. But the two plants can easily cross-pollinate miles away from each other when grown outdoors.
As Colorado's marijuana and hemp industries each expand and more growers opt to work outdoors, the issue of cross-pollination between hemp and marijuana has become a touchy yet urgent issue between the two trades. Marijuana plants grown for THC content are feminized and seedless, like hemp grown for CBD. However, industrial hemp grown for grain and fiber is full of seeds and pollen, which can pollinate seedless cannabis plants, including hemp. Because hemp can't legally test higher than 0.3 percent for THC, cross-pollination between the two can result in heavy financial, quality and potency loss for marijuana growers.
According to Jordan Wellington, a partner for marijuana business consulting firm VS Strategies, the consequences can result in six-figure losses for marijuana farmers in areas like Pueblo County, where hemp farms and the majority of Colorado's outdoor marijuana cultivations are located.
"The point of this is to come up with solutions on how people cultivating this plant for multiple purposes can coexist in Colorado to grow our state’s economy," Wellington said during an October 25 public committee meeting with the state Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED).
Despite the reported issues in Pueblo Country, the Colorado Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Program doesn't have many examples to work with.
“We don’t really have a good reporting structure for crops that have been disposed of or destroyed because of unwanted pollination," CDA Industrial Hemp Program manager Brian Koontz said during the MED meeting. "It has happened, but the most common cause is because they are not compliant or have been ruined by cows, insects or disease."
House Bill 1301, a new law that allows marijuana growers to create a contingency plan to prevent crop loss during extreme weather conditions, also requires the MED to convene a work group to study the impact and causes of cross-pollination between cannabis plants. The group, made up of marijuana and hemp industry representatives, lawyers and plant-science experts, will draft recommendations to the MED before the department issues a final report to legislative agriculture committees by November 1, 2022.
During the meeting, Logan Goolsby, an independent marijuana business compliance manager, said he's notified the MED and CDA of cross-pollination incidents, but a lack of enforcement makes it tricky to come up with a solution.
“Complaints get thrown back and forth like a football," Goolsby said. "I ask from this work group to determine an agency of enforcement. If a complaint comes in, [then] who enforces it, and to what level? I think that would go a long way in helping understand the process going forward.”
Initial suggestions to track and address cross-pollination include an incident report by the CDA or MED to track pollination patterns, and a survey of marijuana and hemp businesses to understand what needs to be studied and discussed before drafting recommendations.
There was some disagreement among working group members over whether the report recommendations should focus on the economic impact of cross-pollination or more scientific research.
"In the future, this is going to be a major issue when bigger businesses start to decide where to invest their capital," said Jonathan McIntosh, a managing partner of Ordway marijuana cultivation Humble Farms. "The states that can fix this issue, they’re going to be the priority."
Hemp farmers don't want to rush any mandates, however.
“We’re treading on a very slippery slope here,” said Veronica Carpio, a hemp farmer and founder of hemp industry group Grow Hemp Colorado. “There are very clear objectives that need to be met for cross-pollination prevention and reduction. Colorado is the first state to bring hemp and marijuana together in this way. If we don’t get it right, this could backfire on us.”
In future meetings, the committee will discuss how to collect data regarding the proximity between hemp and marijuana farms, as well as best practices to reduce cross-pollination among cannabis plants. The issue of wild marijuana grows, or feral cannabis, could be addressed, too.
Feral cannabis can occur in a number of ways, but the most common in Colorado is from wildlife that consumes, carries or drops seeds. BoCo Farms hemp cultivation owner Grant Orvis, a geneticist with a background in cannabis breeding, suggested that members should consider feral cannabis lands and travel patterns of pollen when drafting their recommendations.
"We know cannabis pollen travels very far, but how far viable cannabis pollen travels is probably one of the most important questions to answer,” Orvis noted.
The next cross-pollination work group meeting is scheduled for November 19.