The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union has supported the legalization of industrial hemp, a relative of marijuana with no psychoactive ability, since 2007. Industrial hemp species are international sources of food and fiber cultivated across the world. Because they can’t buy the product locally, hemp processors in Colorado must buy hemp seed and fiber from Canada. That’s right: It is legal to make things out of hemp but not legal to grow it.
We are happy to see that the majority of Colorado voters support legalizing cultivation of industrial hemp, as well. State support of industrial hemp production can promote a versatile alternative crop that is well-suited to local growing conditions even during drought. But federal decriminalization of the crop is the Farmers Union’s first priority because of the risks producers must bear to participate in this worthy but dangerous experiment.
Cultivation of industrial hemp offers economic benefits to others besides farmers looking for a drought-safe crop. Since processing facilities for local crops must be within the state, we can expect to see an increase of jobs at processor plants that currently import their hemp as well as growth in new processors. Local niche-market hemp processors serving markets like Whole Foods already are looking forward to buying locally.
Amendment 64 was an important first step to decriminalize the cultivation of industrial hemp. Now the Colorado Legislature is clearing the way with Senate Bill 241 (largely through the efforts of Sen. Gail Schwartz) for farmers poised to cultivate a product that once was a mainstay of American agriculture.
Agricultural producers cannot be expected to bear all the risk in developing a product under the threat of federal disapproval. Although the bill asserts that producers will not be liable if they register with the Colorado Department of Agriculture and follow state rules, the bill does not offer any protection against sanctions from the Drug Enforcement Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture. The DEA might have bigger fish to fry than hemp producers, but the USDA wields enormous, widespread and almost daily control over the profitability of each agricultural producer. Asking producers to ignore these risks is unrealistic.
We have raised questions regarding negative ramifications for producers participating in USDA programs such as conservation, Farm Service Agency, energy development or crop insurance. Under federal law, producers face the possibility of losing access to federal programs on which they depend for their livelihoods.
The Farmers Union actively is lobbying for federal decriminalization of industrial hemp. Colorado can reduce this threat and encourage cultivation of industrial hemp if the bill mandates effort by the Colorado Department of Agriculture to change federal law. This would be a wise use of the registration dollars to be collected by the department. If the Colorado Department of Agriculture is not prepared to make that effort, then producers will doubt the state’s commitment to fulfilling the wishes of the electorate. Let’s do this right and not leave producers bearing all the risk.
Kent Peppler is president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.