Hemp, Marijuana Growers at Odds Over Proposed Cannabis Farming Law

Cross-pollination between outdoor cannabis plants have had adverse impacts on both the hemp and marijuana industries.
Cross-pollination between outdoor cannabis plants have had adverse impacts on both the hemp and marijuana industries. Jacqueline Collins
A bill in the Colorado State Legislature attempts to cut outdoor marijuana farmers some slack in the face of bad weather and reduce cross-pollination between marijuana and hemp grows. However, not all of the hemp industry is on board yet.

House Bill 1301 — a beefed-up version of a similar bill last year that was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic — would allow outdoor cannabis growers to create a contingency plan to prevent crop loss during extreme weather conditions. The measure would create working groups to reduce cross-pollination between marijuana and hemp plants, as well.

Home to spontaneous weather, Colorado is more than capable of an untimely freeze for outdoor cannabis farms, which only harvest once per year, during the fall. Representative Daneya Esgar, the prime bill sponsor, says that these farmers deserve more protection for such financial impacts.

"This bill was introduced last year in response to outdoor grows having very stringent regulations and losing millions of dollars because of adverse weather," Esgar told her colleagues on the House Finance Committee during HB 1301's first successful vote, on May 24. "We're just bringing it back and making it better than it was."

The best practices to prevent crop damage from bad weather would be created and enforced by the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, according to Esgar's bill.

The other outdoor cannabis issue HB 1301 hopes to address — cross-pollination between plants — could be more polarizing among farmers. Although marijuana and hemp are regulated and grown differently, they're still of the same plant genus and can easily cross pollinate miles away from each other if grown outdoors. Marijuana plants grown for THC content are feminized and don't have seeds, just 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.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can educate everyone, because there are some unintended consequences of cross-pollination," Esgar said.

When cross-pollination between marijuana and hemp occurs,  a handful of problems with regulations, including loss of yield and profit, are presented, according to Zack Dorsett, a hemp farmer for Blue Forest Farms in Longmont.

“It’s so bad,” he says in an interview with Westword. “We had a neighbor one year that grew un-feminized seeds and was spraying pollen all over the place, and the whole crop pretty much got ruined that year.” Hemp can also be harmed in the cross-pollination process, with some hemp crops testing above the federal THC limit of 0.3 percent after being pollinated by other cannabis plants.

There is pushback against the bill from some hemp industry members, however.

Colorado Hemp Association vice president Samantha Walsh argued that factoring in recommendations from experts to prevent cross-pollination is important, but told lawmakers that any policy imposing a buffer on hemp agriculture is baseless and will not work.

“We understand that telling people where they can plant and what they can't plant is a nonstarter — not only for us in the hemp industry, but I think it’s a horrible precedent for agriculture in general,” Walsh told committee members.

Walsh prefers that a working group make recommendations to the state only if those proposed guidelines are based on scientific research. Establishing best practices or technological methods to identify wild cannabis plants and calculate high-pollen risks for farmers is efficient, but agriculture barriers will not work, she argued.

According to Walsh, making the choice to grow marijuana outdoors comes with a natural risk, with consequences that can be prevented in an indoor, climate-controlled environment.

For Yeti Farms marijuana grower Shawn Honaker, though, the legislation is a crucial step to support the new sector of farmers.

“We’ve seen cross-pollination happen for about four different years now from neighboring [hemp] farms that have either gone out of business or gone defunct and haven’t cleaned up their farm," he testified to the committee.“This bill would help us try to come up with some sort of mutual agreement in the hemp industry to come up with a solution to this problem."

The House Appropriations Committee passed the bill unanimously on May 25, with the full House passing the bill the next day. HB 1301 now awaits its first Senate hearing, expected to take place this week.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hilal is an alumni of Metropolitan State University of Denver with a degree in political science. She's written for Denver Life Magazine and 303 Magazine, and is the current cannabis intern for Westword.
Contact: Hilal Bahcetepe