It may be too soon to gauge the long-term arc of hemp in Colorado. But a lot of people are banking on the future of this once controversial crop as a 21st century money maker. Right now, hemp is---as the saying goes---small potatoes in the state’s crop portfolio. But a lot of investors are betting the farm that hemp has a long-term seat at the table. Just getting there, however, has been a long, hard slog against decades-long conventional wisdom.
The controversy surrounding hemp in the United States begins with its cousin, marijuana. The two are related; both are members of the Cannabis family. But unlike marijuana, hemp contains no psychoactive element. Its benefits are primarily commercial, industrial and medicinal. Getting high is not one. But first, a bit of hemp history.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, marijuana use was growing more pervasive---the government targeted Latino and African-American populations as its biggest consumers. Enter Harry Anslinger, Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics---the forerunner to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Using purely specious propaganda, linking marijuana to everything from mental illness to jazz music---he called jazz ‘satanic---Anslinger succeeded in passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. In classifying both hemp and marijuana as narcotics, the act effectively killed hemp as an industrial staple.
But well before then---thousands of years---hemp has had an array of practical uses. Archeologists have found traces of hemp in foods and oils in ancient China dating to 6,000 BCE. It has also been documented in other places including ancient Persia, Russia and Greece where it was used in everything from rope to sails.
Today, vilifying hemp---certainly in Colorado agriculture---is over. Hemp again became a legal crop in the state with the 2012 passage of Amendment 64, which decriminalized recreational marijuana. Today, hemp’s boosters say its crop value is sky high. And no more so than in Pueblo and southern Colorado.
“In Colorado,” said Pueblo’s Sal Pace, “we have a robust, mature industry.” Pace, a former state legislator and Pueblo County Commissioner, consults the industry. “The future of hemp is going to expand exponentially.” Pace thinks a line from Pueblo and all through the Arkansas River Valley is prime real estate for this new field of farming. Because the sale of so much of this area’s water rights were sold off in the 1970’s and hemp uses far less water than conventional crops, a lot of land that has laid fallow for years can go back into productivity.
Pace believes Pueblo County and southeast Colorado is hemp’s promise land. “We have more days during the year when farmers can cultivate, the aridity is good and there’s less likelihood for mold and mildew,” he said. “It’s perfect.” Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Cannabis Research Institute is also nearby where every aspect of the plant---marijuana and hemp---is studied.
“Last year, we had almost 31,000 acres registered (for planting),” said Colorado Department of Agriculture’s, Wondirad Gebru. “We currently have more than 45,000 acres registered.” A 2019 projection has not yet been determined.
While the Marijuana Tax Act put the brakes on hemp decades ago by conflating it with recreational marijuana, there is no such prohibition today. In Colorado and other states where it is now legal for cultivation, the crop will be prominent in an eclectic array of items, including beer, milk, sunscreen, rope, clothing and medicine. And medicine, said Pace, is where Pueblo wants to make its mark.
Charting hemp’s future is anyone’s guess. But an overview of its past is nothing short of intriguing. For years, an urban legend has it that both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written on hemp. Early drafts may have been penned on hemp, but the documents that are in the national archives are purely parchment. What is not urban legend is that Revolutionary-era farmers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, did dedicate acreage to hemp cultivation. Science today, however, has catapulted hemp into a whole different frontier.
“What we’re seeing is hemp being used for extraction purposes,” said Pace. Cannabidiol, or CBD, has medicinal properties and is extracted from the plant. Research has shown palliative properties in its ability to reduce nausea and anxiety. It has also been used to counter nicotine addiction, treat acne and has been used to lower levels of depression.
Studies are underway in Colorado to determine the feasibility of hemp in animal feed. The State Department of Agriculture, however, has not given the green light to include it in the feed of livestock or companion animals. But CBD is on the market as an ingredient in certain dog biscuits. It is beneficial, said manufacturers, for treating car sickness, separation anxiety or when dogs have been frightened by fireworks.