DENVER, Colo. (Sept. 15, 2016) – When it comes to hemp, states ignoring federal rules lead the way. In Colorado, the hemp industry reached another milestone recently when the state agriculture department certified the first domestic hemp seed in the nation.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has certified six separate varieties of hemp seeds, all tailored to the state’s high altitude. By certifying the seed, the state guarantees it will consistently produce plants with a THC level below the 0.3 percent threshold allowed by law. THC is the active compound in marijuana that results in the “high.”

Colorado Department of Agriculture hemp program director Duane Sinning called seed certification “vital to the long-term growth of the industry.” Certified seed offers growers assurance that their crop will meet legal standards and lowers fears of losing their crop because of high THC levels. The availability of certified seed decreases the risk growers face and will open the door for more farmers to jump into the market.

Experts cite the availability of certified seed as one of the biggest hurdles facing the hemp industry in the U.S., but in truth, federal prohibition stands as the biggest barrier. The feds ban importation of seed, and farmers must be resourceful in their quest to obtain seed in the handful of states that have legalized hemp cultivation.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Sinning explained that there was actually already seed in the state before legalization.

“Before there was the farm bill there were people that have always been growing seed, just like there was marijuana in the state before there was Amendment 64, there was hemp in the state,” Sinning said. “They picked and harvested a lot of that seed and they’ve been doing some crossing to develop some new varieties in the state.”

Seed certification creates a stable and reliable source of hemp seeds and drastically eases entry into the market.

It comes as no surprise that Colorado led the way in developing certified seeds. The state was one of the the first to legalize hemp and create a state program that does not depend on federal permission. As a result, the hemp industry has advanced rapidly in the state.

According to Sinning, 42 of 64 Colorado counties currently have growers registered to cultivate industrial hemp. He estimates farmers will grow more than 8,000 acres of the plant outdoors this year, with another 1.25 million square feet of indoor production.

All this despite federal prohibition of hemp cultivation.

Up until two years ago, the feds maintained an almost complete ban on hemp. It wasn’t technically illegal to grow the crop, but it required a DEA permit – something nearly impossible to get. Early in 2014, President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill into law, which included a provision allowing a handful of states to begin limited research programs growing hemp. The “hemp amendment”

…allows State Agriculture Departments, colleges and universities to grow hemp, defined as the non-drug oil-seed and fiber varieties of Cannabis, for academic or agricultural research purposes, but it applies only to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law.

In short, current federal law authorizes the farming of hemp – by research institutions only, for research only. Farming for commercial purposes by individuals and businesses remains prohibited. But Colorado law ignores federal prohibition and authorizes commercial farming and production anyway. The results speak for themselves.

Oregon is another state that allows industrial hemp production without any federal permission and officials there have reported similar growth in the industry. According to a recent report in the Oregonian,  77 people obtained licenses to grow hemp this year compared to 11 last year. Officials say this year’s crop covers about 1,200 acres. Many growers in Oregon hope to cash in on the growing market for cannabidiol, or CBD. The compound has proven effective for treating seizures in children and other medical problems.

The development of the hemp industry in Colorado and Oregon demonstrate the effectiveness of simply ignoring the feds. While federal prohibition remains in effect, state programs remove a layer of law inhibiting hemp farming. With that barrier removed, some farmers willingly risk the relatively small chance of federal prosecution and grow hemp anyway. As the market develops, economic incentives lure more and more players into industry. This creates a positive feedback loop that effectively nullifies federal prohibition in effect.

It comes as no surprise that states like Colorado and Oregon that encourage hemp cultivation without federal approval lead the way in development of both hemp products and certified seed. Meanwhile, programs languish in states like Kentucky where officials have deferred to federal policy.

States serious about cashing in on the economic benefits of hemp need to look carefully at policy in Colorado and Oregon as they seek a way forward. Deferring to the feds is a losing strategy.

Mike Maharrey

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