Farmers who intend to plant Colorado’s first industrial hemp crop can register starting March 1, though they should be aware of several unanswered legal questions, the Colorado Department of Agriculture says.
"There are challenges in this first year, and I think the most important thing is that we want those who are interested in cultivating to do so, to come to the department and register," explains Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner of agriculture. "But we at least want them to be aware that there are challenges."
While it isn’t clear how many people will register to grow hemp, the agriculture department has fielded numerous queries from throughout the state in the past few months.
The issue is complicated because while Colorado has legalized cultivation of industrial hemp—also called Cannabis spp—the practice remains illegal at the federal level. Recent activity in Washington, though, has permitted some flexibility. For example, Carleton notes, memos from the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Treasury have indicated that while Cannabis remains illegal, the federal government will defer enforcement to individual states.
"In both cases, they indicated they wanted to see a rigorous and robust state regulatory system to ensure that the rules and the laws were followed and that this stuff wasn’t being funneled for purposes that were illegal or improper," he says. Those memos include guidance for financial transactions related to Cannabis by banks, though the financial sector has indicated it does not have adequate clearance to begin opening accounts.
Additionally, a provision of the 2014 farm bill permits industrial hemp cultivation and research in authorized states, Carleton says. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) collaborated to pass the measure.
"I thought that was a very important step in this evolving legal structure with regard to industrial hemp," Carleton notes.
While Colorado state law permits only outdoor hemp cultivation for research and development, Carleton adds, there has been talk in the legislature of expanding that authority to indoor cultivation, which would extend the growing season year-round. Commercial growers can cultivate either way.
With that history in mind, Colorado is looking ahead to its inaugural hemp planting season. Growers considering applying for planting should be conscious of several factors, Carleton says:
Seed quality and procurement: While farmers will not be asked to disclose the source of their hemp seed, they will need to verify that the seed they intend to plant will produce hemp that contains THC levels of less than 0.3% on a dry weight basis. "Since industrial hemp has been illegal in this country, there’s no certified seed that anyone’s aware of within the United States," Carleton explains. "Most of the certified seed is out of the country in places like Canada and China, and under federal law, you can’t import viable hemp seed." At least 33% of farmer registrants will be inspected annually, and hemp fields will be randomly sampled before testing at a state-run biochemistry lab that also tests products such as fertilizer.
Pesticide application: Only a handful of pesticides can be applied on hemp without violating pesticide labeling laws or other regulations. None are registered for the crop under federal law. "That’s a process we’re working through now, and we hope to have something a little more definitive on that in the not too distant future," Carleton says.
Farm programs: Planting industrial hemp can jeopardize participation in federal crop insurance, farm loans and the conservation reserve program. A lawyer should be consulted about specific concerns.