Marijuana: Does Obama administration's pot policy apply to hemp, too?

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Jared Polis, Boulder Democrat and pro-hemp congressman, co-hosted a congressional briefing and press conference in Washington, D.C. today to discuss the future of industrial hemp farming and whether further clarification regarding its legality is needed in light of the Obama administration's recent announcement that it will not sue to stop Colorado's pot-centric Amendment 64.

"We see no evidence that the federal government is interested in prosecuting hemp production," he told us.

In addition to allowing adults 21 and over to use and possess small amounts of marijuana and establishing a foundation for retail sales of recreational pot, Amendment 64 paved the way for Colorado farmers to grow and sell industrial hemp, marijuana's sober stepsister.

Amendment 64 directed the state legislature to "enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp" by July 1, 2014. Lawmakers beat that deadline in May when they approved a bill that requires the state Department of Agriculture to put in place a process to register hemp farmers by March 1, 2014. A nine-member advisory committee is working with the department on that directive.

Although hemp contains little to none of the psychoactive ingredient THC found in marijuana and is primarily used to make clothing, food and soaps, the federal government does not distinguish between the two. Both are illegal at the federal level.

On August 29, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole released a memo to all U.S. Attorneys in light of state ballot initiatives that legalize marijuana, such as Amendment 64. The memo reiterates that while Congress believes marijuana is a "dangerous drug," the Department of Justice should focus its limited resources on areas such as preventing marijuana distribution to children, preventing drugged driving and preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover for drug trafficking.

The memo "shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters," Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement.

But does that respect extend to hemp? When asked in a phone interview before the briefing, Polis gave this answer: "It's always at the discretion of the attorney general and the president whether to pursue states that allow it. In the meantime, I fully expect that states that are encouraging cultivation will continue to be able to do so."

Is that the conclusion Polis drew from the memo? "I've heard no reports of people growing industrial hemp being arrested by federal agents," he said, not quite answering our question but reiterating that hemp hasn't been a federal enforcement priority.

Today's briefing was also scheduled to feature Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie and Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, who has been more explicit than Polis in interpreting the memo with regard to hemp. Comer said last week that he believes the Department of Justice memo on marijuana allows Kentucky to move forward with cultivating hemp. "We're going to proceed unless the DOJ specifically tells us not to proceed," he told a local television station.

Polis said today's events are "seeking to raise awareness" about hemp production among other members of Congress. "It's not on their radar," he maintained. "We hope other members of Congress are able to share with the agriculture officers in their states and the farmers in their districts this opportunity."

As for whether he's awaiting a Department of Justice memo specifically on hemp, Polis said, "The more clarity the Department of Justice can provide that they fully accept hemp production regulated by the states will be appreciated.... This industrial hemp issue has not been terribly controversial.... But it still operates under a legal cloud for no policy reason, and it's time we remove any barriers to American farmers."

Continue to read Cole's memo on marijuana.

Justice Department Memo: Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement

More from our Marijuana archive: "Photos: Anti-pot-tax rally attracts big crowd for free joints."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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