WASHINGTON — Colorado is poised to become a leading maker of hemp after the Senate passed a bill this week to remove certain hurdles and allow universities to produce and cultivate the plant for agricultural and research purposes.
The language authored by Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis was included in the Farm Bill that has already passed the House, and is now headed to the White House where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law.
“This will invigorate our thriving market for this historic and versatile crop, creating jobs in industries from agriculture to food service,” Polis said in a statement after the measure cleared the last legislative hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday.
Polis actually voted against the Farm Bill that contained his hemp language, citing other measures included in the legislative package he opposed such as the Christmas tree tax, a $30 million catfish inspection program, and sugar price supports.
Polis’ amendment bars the federal government from enforcing its laws against hemp in states where producing and cultivating the plant is legal. It would override the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994, among other laws.
Industrial hemp can be used to make plastics, clothes, rope, flags, and fuel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is controversial because it bears a trace of tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive drug. Nine other states permit the production and cultivation of hemp.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat, brushed aside the notion that the legalization of hemp would normalize marijuana consumption for recreational purposes.
“It’s a step toward a rational policy,” Blumenauer said. “You can eat (hemp). You can process it. You can wear it.”
The Senate passed the Farm Bill on a 68 to 32 vote with Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet voting yes.
The House approved the same bill 251 to 166 last week with Republican Rep. Cory Gardner and Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter voting yes, while Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman voted no along with Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette and Polis. Republican Rep. Scott Tipton missed the vote because of a death in his family.
The $10 billion Farm Bill also funds food stamps, and contained more than $400 million for the Payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program.
Tipton was skeptical of Polis’ provision and compared it to the contentious legalization of marijuana in Colorado.
“I think we need to focus on the consequences before we rush to legalization,” Tipton said in an interview Wednesday.
Although Tipton conceded that more states are likely to legalize marijuana, he suggested legalization has harmed the state’s budget and economy. He noted the state of Colorado has awarded grant money to study the effect of marijuana use on drivers and forced businesses to operate on a cash-only basis.
However, the path to the production and cultivation of hemp in Colorado might not be without its own hurdles.
Michael Hooker, executive director of public affairs and communications at Colorado State University, a leading agriculture school with 22,500 undergraduates, said university officials are seeking clarity about federal drug laws before seeking donations for research.
“It’s too early really to say. There are some federal regulations that need to come into line, so we’re waiting to see,” Hooker said.