Saturday, January 19, 2013
Article in Denver Post
No, not pot. The fanatics get their kicks from buzz-free hemp.
A genetic cousin to marijuana, hemp is a look-alike plant with one key difference. It contains almost no THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes users high.
But what hemp lacks in THC, it makes up for by being a remarkable workhorse of industrial utility. From auto bodies to textile fibers to nutrition bars — even as a cleaner of toxic contamination — hemp struts its stuff.
Boosters say hemp is poised to become a big industry in Colorado because Amendment 64 allows its legal cultivation pending legislative authorization.
Lynda Parker's eyes light up, the all-natural way, when she talks about it.
"My friends tell me I'm too evangelical," says the retired Dex saleswoman. "But there's hardly a problem in the world that can't be solved with hemp."
She ticks off an abbreviated list, just a tantalizing hint, of the practical applications. "Hemp is food, animal feed, fiber, fuel, shelter," she says. "It cleans the air, the water, the soil. Hemp could be enormous for Colorado because we're the first state to legalize it."
Hemp's most common uses are food products derived from seeds and seed oil. Fiber from the stalks of hemp plants are used in clothing and industrial applications, including as a strengthening agent in concrete.
Parker is part of an early-stage, loose-knit coalition formed to raise hemp's profile. Other members range from a medical-marijuana activist to a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado School of Mines. Their common thread is a belief that hemp is going to be big — bigger, perhaps, than legal marijuana.
The Colorado Center on Law & Policy estimates that state-sanctioned marijuana sales initially could be as much as $270 million a year, producing state and local taxes of $47 million a year. Yet a mature hemp industry — from farm to factory to storefront — might be 10 times larger than legal marijuana, backers project. Could anything possibly dampen the potential of this beneficial botanical?
Well, yes. The federal government for one.
Like marijuana, hemp is still illegal in the eyes of the feds, despite Colorado's clear electoral mandate to legalize it.
Federal officials have said little about how they will react to Colorado's new law. Some analysts say it's unlikely they will target individual users, but the outlook is less certain for federal crackdowns on larger enterprises, such as farm-scale growing.
Hemp backers say that would be an extreme injustice, given that hemp has no narcotic properties. But federal law does not differentiate between the cultivation of hemp and marijuana. Even in Colorado, the Amendment 64 implementation task force is unlikely to set up hemp regulations until next year because it has its hands full with the complexities of marijuana rule-making.
Test crop planned There are plenty of hemp products on the market — clothing, food, beverages, construction materials. But because of the federal prohibition on growing, all hemp must come from imported sources. Canada is the largest supplier to the U.S.
If Colorado were to establish a hemp-farming industry, it would be limited by a federal ban on interstate transportation of the crop. The harvested hemp would need to stay inside Colorado, where currently there are few major industrial customers.
That limitation does not deter Mike Bowman, a Yuma County farmer and alternative-energy activist. He plans to plant a test crop of 100 acres of hemp, possibly as early as this year, on land typically reserved for corn.
Hemp requires much less water than corn, Bowman notes, thus providing a potential solution to over-pumped aquifers on the eastern plains.
In Canada, he said, hemp is a more profitable crop than wheat. According to the Alberta provincial government, hemp seed production can yield up to $1,000 per acre. Canadian wheat in 2012 yielded an average of $315 an acre. But the threat of federal intervention in the U.S. and the misperception that equates hemp to marijuana are formidable hurdles.
"If hemp had a different name, it would be a lot easier," Bowman says.
Parker and other hemp proponents plan to visit eastern Colorado farm towns this week to talk up the potential.
Supplies of Colorado-grown hemp would be welcome by Ari Sherman, president of Boulder-based Evo Hemp. In a small commercial kitchen, Sherman and his four associates make nutrition bars containing hemp seed, fruits and nuts.
The company imports several hundred pounds of seed each month from Canadian suppliers.
"The transportation costs are huge," Sherman says. "It definitely would help us to have supplies from Colorado. And to create a product where the majority of the ingredients are from Colorado would be great."
The 1½-year-old company distributes about 700 bars a week to small grocers. It recently signed a deal to supply Whole Foods stores in the Rocky Mountain region and is talking with King Soopers parent Kroger Co.
There's money to be made in hemp, but that's not what drives industry proponent Parker.
"I'm a product of the '60s," she says. "If we make some money, I won't reject it, but I do this out of my passion for hemp."