Colorado universities can now legally grow hemp for research -- but will they?

Colleges and universities in Colorado and other states where industrial hemp is legal are now allowed to grow the crop for research purposes, thanks to a provision in the Farm Bill signed into law on Friday by President Obama. The provision, which was originally introduced as an amendment by Colorado Representative Jared Polis, defines hemp as separate from marijuana -- and could give the fledgling industry the scientific boost it needs to get off the ground.

So will Colorado universities start studying cannabis?

Perhaps not yet. When we asked whether Colorado State University has plans to conduct research on industrial hemp in light of the Farm Bill provision, spokesman Mike Hooker sent us the following statement:

As a land grant institution with vast expertise in agriculture, Colorado State University is watching closely to see when language in the Farm Bill results in the policy changes needed to permissibly cultivate, research and conduct other activities related to growing industrial hemp in the U.S. Once new federal regulations concerning industrial hemp are issued by the Department of Agriculture, Colorado State is poised to help explore the possibility that hemp could become an important crop in Colorado.
The Farm Bill also allows state agriculture departments to grow hemp for research purposes. But Colorado Department of Agriculture Deputy Commissioner Ron Carleton says "it is very unlikely" that the department will do so. It's unclear, he adds, whether the department will have to register universities to grow research hemp. "To be clarified," he writes in an e-mail. (We asked him to let us know if and when he receives clarification.)

In the meantime, here's the text of the provision:


(a) In General- Notwithstanding the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.), the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (20 U.S.C. 7101 et seq.), chapter 81 of title 41, United States Code, or any other Federal law, an institution of higher education (as defined in section 101 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1001)) or a State department of agriculture may grow or cultivate industrial hemp if--

(1) the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research; and

(2) the growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the laws of the State in which such institution of higher education or State department of agriculture is located and such research occurs.

Eric Steenstra, president of the national advocacy organization Vote Hemp, says the provision will allow researchers to begin the work of rebuilding the American hemp industry. More than fifty years have passed since the last crop was grown here, Steenstra says. "All of the genetics we had from centuries of growing hemp have been lost in the last fifty years," he says, "and we need to find varieties that are going to grow well in different parts of the country and that will meet the needs of manufacturers."

(Of note: Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin planted 55 acres of hemp last spring, despite the fact that farmers were not yet allowed to register to grow the crop in Colorado. The registration officially opens on March 1 of this year.)

And manufacturers' needs are changing, Steenstra says. While hemp has always been prized for its fibers, he says, the demand is growing for products made from hemp seeds and hemp-seed oil, such as foods, body lotions and soap. "The modern hemp market is going to look a little different than what it used to look like," he says.

Steenstra made sure to give props to former Colorado state senator Lloyd Casey, who was among the first to introduce hemp legalization legislation in the United States. In the mid-1990s, Casey tried twice to legalize hemp production here, but the measures failed after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration came out against them. Casey, who's long-since retired and now lives in Ohio, still thinks the DEA's position was ridiculous -- a point he made clear when we spoke to him last May. At the time, Casey was planning a trip back to Colorado to attend the signing of the bill to register hemp farmers with the state.

"He deserves a lot of credit," Steenstra says. "He started this whole process."

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Hemp: Read final regulations for growing industrial hemp in Colorado."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar