Intended to help direct U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved hemp research, outreach and educational efforts in the state, the Colorado Hemp Center of Excellence was established by a bill approved in 2018 by the Colorado Legislature. The bill mandated that the center's launch and early strategic planning be managed by a third party to be selected by a committee set up by the CDA. That committee ultimately chose the Marijuana Policy Group (now MPG Consulting), which had been at the forefront of policy work on state-legal marijuana and THC but was relatively new to hemp regulation.
While marijuana and hemp are technically the same plant, they don't follow the same rules: One is prohibited by the feds, and the other is now legal to farm across the country under the USDA. According to several competitors for the Hemp Center contract as well as other members of the hemp industry, the MPG's lack of hemp experience alone raised eyebrows — but there were also concerns as to how the MPG was chosen last fall, as well as the CDA's dismissal of initial complaints from the hemp industry.
And while a perceived conflict of interest between a selection committee member and the MPG stalled the contract agreement, on January 11 the CDA announced that it was still moving forward with its original selection after reviewing the six Hemp Center contract bids.
Several competitors say they don't think the CDA took that review seriously, since no updates were allowed to the months-old bids, many of which included federal funding programs whose deadlines had already expired. At least two of the bidders say they've now filed protests over the re-selection process.
"You need to earn it through the merits, and this process has not shown me that the CDA is willing to allow the candidate most beneficial to the state to earn it through merits," says Frank Robison, a competing bidder and hemp attorney. "That's something I just can't let go."
Robison still has an appeal over the initial contract selection pending in Denver District Court, and he says he's prepared to go to court over the second selection, too.
BoCo Farms, which is owned by Grant Orvis, had also filed a protest over the MPG's initial selection, arguing that Ean Seeb, the governor's marijuana policy advisor and a member of the Hemp Center contract selection committee, had a conflict of interest regarding MPG director Adam Orens, since the two had a professional relationship dating back to Seeb's time in the private sector of legal marijuana. A state appeals administrator eventually agreed that there was a perceived conflict of interest between Seeb and Orens, and granted part of the appeal filed by BoCo Farms. Seeb had notified the CDA of his connection to Orens before the contract was awarded, and he'd been allowed to remain on the selection committee for the first round.
When the selection committee reconvened to review the same bids — this time without Seeb — it once again chose the MPG to run the Hemp Center. And once again, Orvis and Robison have concerns.
According to Orvis, several applicants had proposed using grants from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture before the contract process was stalled in October. Those grants were doled out earlier this month, though, severely hampering any bids that included them. The CDA "didn't allow adjusted proposals, they just went in and reviewed the proposals as they were," he says. "If the court comes back and says the procurement process was wrong, they're going to have to de-award the contract."
While he notes that the CDA can move forward with the contract because the six-figure payment to the MPG falls below the limit required to hold up a state contract during a court appeal, Robison says he's going to push his complaint.
"If my [second] protest gets denied, I can choose to appeal through the Department of Personnel Administration, or through district court. I'll probably go back through district court," he says. "That could put me in the ironic position of having two appeals in district court for the same contract."
Concerns over the MPG's growing involvement in hemp policy were raised even before the Hemp Center contract was opened for proposals, back when the MPG was chosen to lead the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan (CHAMP) meetings and selected to create a summary report of those meetings. That inspired hemp-industry members to send a complaint to Governor Jared Polis and the CDA after the MPG was first awarded the Hemp Center contract; they argued that the MPG's role with CHAMP had created an unfair advantage for the outfit while creating its Hemp Center bid, since the summary wasn't slated for release until months later.
"The MPG wasn't anywhere to be seen in hemp until they were anointed a single-source contract for the CHAMP program," Robison says. "Did my group have the best proposal? Did BoCo Farms? Did Gateway Solutions? I don't know, but I've read at least three to four of the six proposals, and I know what they put in those proposals are true."
Orens says that the MPG was the most qualified candidate to help create the Hemp Center, pointing to previous experience that the company and its leadership have in setting up state centers of excellence. He also notes that the MPG has no plans to manage the Hemp Center once it's up and running.
The CDA says it had not received any protests before the deadline. In a statement to Westword, it defended its second selection of the MPG for the contract, noting that there's a timeline that must be followed if the Hemp Center is ever to be built.
"The Colorado Department of Agriculture has concluded that the selection of MPG Consulting was the most advantageous to Colorado based upon their proposal to develop a strategic plan for implementation of a Hemp Center of Excellence. We are very excited about moving forward with the development of the Center of Excellence and feel that MPG will be a strong partner in helping us advance the hemp industry in Colorado," the statement reads, then notes: "Funding for this project expires at the end of the current state fiscal year, June 30, 2021."