Pubdate: Wed, 07 Aug 2013
Source: International Herald-Tribune (International)
Copyright: International Herald Tribune 2013
Author: Jack Healy


Along the plains of eastern Colorado, on a patch of soil where his 
father once raised alfalfa, Ryan Loflin is growing a leafy green 
challenge to the U.S. drug laws.

His fields are sown with hemp, a tame cousin of marijuana that was 
once grown openly in the United States but is now outlawed as a 
controlled substance. Last year, as Colorado voters legalized 
marijuana for recreational use, they also approved a measure laying a 
path for farmers like Mr. Loflin, 40, to once again grow and harvest 
hemp, a potentially lucrative crop that can be processed into goods 
as diverse as cooking oil, clothing and building material. This 
spring, he became the first farmer in Colorado to publicly sow his 
fields with hemp seed.

"I'm not going to hide anymore," he said one recent morning after 
striding through a sea of hip-high plants growing fast under the sun.

Mr. Loflin's 60-acre, or 24-hectare, experiment is one of an 
estimated two dozen small hemp plantings sprouting in Colorado. Hemp 
cultivation presents a vexing problem for the federal government, 
which draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana, as it decides 
how to respond to a new era of legalized marijuana in Colorado and 
Washington State.

State agencies have worked quickly to create new rules, licenses and 
taxes for hemp and recreational marijuana. Many towns have voted to 
ban the new retailers; others have decided to regulate them. Denver, 
for example, is proposing a 5 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.

Colorado has set up an industrial hemp commission to write rules to 
register hemp farmers and charge them a fee to grow the crop 
commercially. "It's something that can be copied and used 
nationally," said Michael Bowman, a farmer in northeastern Colorado 
who sits on the state hemp commission. "We're trying to build a 
legitimate industry."

The state will also be able to test crops randomly to ensure that 
they contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical 
in marijuana - far below the level found in marijuana.

Opponents say that hemp and marijuana are essentially the same plant 
and that both contain the same psychoactive substance. But supporters 
say that comparing hemp with potent strains of marijuana is like 
comparing a nonalcoholic beer with a bottle of vodka.

Still, farmers and marijuana advocates worry: will drug agents stand 
on the sidelines and allow Colorado and Washington to pursue their 
own experiments with legalization? Or will the federal government 
crack down to assert its authority over drug policies?

A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Denver said hemp 
farmers were "not on our radar," but R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of 
the Obama administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy, 
has offered stern words against both marijuana and hemp, saying that 
no matter what states do, the plants are still illegal in the federal 
government's view.

"Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant," 
Mr. Kerlikowske wrote in response to a 2011 petition that sought to 
legalize hemp cultivation. "While most of the THC in cannabis plants 
is concentrated in the marijuana, all parts of the plant, including 
hemp, can contain THC, a Schedule I controlled substance."

Lately, hemp has been tiptoeing toward the agricultural mainstream, 
gaining support from farmers' trade groups and a wide array of 
politicians in statehouses and in Washington. In the 
Republican-controlled House, a provision tucked into the farm bill 
would let universities in hemp-friendly states grow small plots for research.

A handful of states, from liberal Vermont to conservative North 
Dakota and Kentucky, have voted to allow commercial hemp.

Every year, the federal authorities seize and destroy millions of 
marijuana plants in a crackdown that has rattled the medical 
marijuana industry in California, but the pace of seizures has 
dropped sharply in recent years. In 2012, federal officials reported 
that 3.9 million cannabis plants had been destroyed under D.E.A. 
eradication efforts. A year earlier, officials said they had 
eradicated 6.7 million plants.

Beyond the risk of federal raids and seizures, Kevin Sabet, a former 
drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, said the market for 
hemp goods was still vanishingly small and questioned whether it 
could really be a panacea for farmers.

"In a world with finite capacity to handle drug problems," said Mr. 
Sabet, now the director of the Drug Policy Institute, "my advice 
would be for people to think less about an insignificant issue like 
hemp and more about the very real issues of drug addiction, marijuana 
commercialization and glamorization, and how to make our policies work better."

Even without the threat of federal raids, transforming hemp into a 
cash crop will be like asking a clear sky for rain. Viable seeds are 
illegal and scarce. Few farmers or experts in the United States have 
any expertise in growing hemp. And there is basically no 
infrastructure to process the plants into legal components like oil, 
fibers and proteins.

Even here, farmers like Mr. Loflin are walking a precarious line. 
Although Colorado voters opened the door to hemp farming last year, 
the state warned would-be hemp farmers in May that they would not be 
authorized to plant until early in 2014.

But this spring, Mr. Loflin decided it was time. For years, he had 
read about how hemp could replenish undernourished soil and be woven 
and squeezed into a wide array of products. He believes the plant 
could one day lift the fortunes of struggling small farmers.

He spent the winter assembling a seed collection from suppliers in 
Britain, Canada, China and Germany, where hemp is legal. They entered 
the country via U.P.S., labeled "bird seed" or "toasted hemp seed." 
One bag was seized by customs officials, he said. Some 1,500 pounds, 
or 680 kilograms, of seeds were not.

At the end of June, with more than $15,000 invested in the venture, 
he planted his crop.

When Mr. Loflin visits the farm from his home in western Colorado, he 
half expects to see D.E.A. cars racing down Highway 160 to burn down 
his crop before harvest. But he believes he can stake a living in 
hemp's oily seeds and versatile fibers. To him, hemp's outlaw status 
is just another hazard of starting a business. "It's well worth the 
risk," he said. "It's hemp. Come on, it just needs to be done."
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