DENVER — Colorado is just starting its experiment with industrial hemp production, but interest in the new crop is so strong that the state is moving to expand the number and size of farms growing marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin.
A bill that won unanimous approval in a Senate committee this week would allow year-round hemp cultivation in greenhouses and strike a 10-acre limit on hemp for research and development.
"Hemp, I believe, is going to be the most valuable crop for Colorado farmers in the future," said Michael Bowman, a farmer from Wray who plans to grow hemp on his eastern Colorado farm this spring.
Lawmakers shared Bowman's hyperbolic enthusiasm.
"Hemp can fix every problem in the world if we just let it, so let's get to work finding out the hundreds of thousands of uses for hemp," said Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial.
In 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products, largely from China and Canada, compared to $1.4 million in imports in 2000. Most of that was hemp seed and hemp oil, used in granola bars, soaps, lotions and cooking oil.
Colorado authorized hemp cultivation in 2012 when it legalized marijuana for recreational use. Farmers must apply for permits with the state Department of Agriculture, which are being issued for the first time this year, though a few growers didn't wait and brought in sparse and scraggly experimental crops last year.
Twelve other states have removed barriers to hemp production — California, Kentucky, Indiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, according to the Vote Hemp advocacy group.
The Colorado bill's passage appears likely, but there are obstacles to making hemp more than an experimental crop.
While a national Farm Bill signed into law in February lifts a decades-old ban on hemp cultivation, federal law still bans importing hemp seeds considered necessary for a viable industry.
In February, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Vilsack seeking permission to import seed from other countries. He hasn't heard back.
"Our fear is that this seed shortage will unreasonably suppress the number of registered growers, stifling the wishes of Colorado voters to begin hemp production," Hickenlooper wrote.
State officials say that the USDA referred questions about hemp seed to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which hasn't indicated any change looming. "What we've been told is that DEA trumps all," Ron Carleton, deputy agriculture commissioner and overseer of the industrial hemp program, told senators this week.
Colorado's Agriculture Department has received 43 applications to grow hemp. Applications are being accepted through May. Farmers accepted into the program must test plants to make sure they are low in THC, the chemical that gives marijuana psychotropic effects.
Colorado currently requires hemp to be grown outside. State officials want greenhouse growing, too.
"We can essentially grow it year-round when you do it indoors," Carleton said.
Once the hemp is harvested, the next step in the process is a little unclear, state officials say.
Finished hemp can be legally exported out of state, but what that means is unclear. For example, can farmers send hemp seed to another state to be turned into oil, or must the oil be produced in Colorado before it can be used in another state's soap factory?
Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, wondered about harvested hemp parts. "Would we be in trouble if we tried to ship those out of state?" he asked.
Still, farmers and state officials told lawmakers that Colorado should barrel ahead.
"If we waited for Congress or DEA to do any of this, we'd all grow old, and the next generation would be sitting here having this conversation again," Bowman said.
The bill awaits a vote by the full Senate before heading to the House.
Senate Bill 184: http://bit.ly/1eSimbs