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Colorado and the Politics of Hemp

  • Jan 28, 2013 | Gail Cole

 Hemp Rope.

Last November, voters in Colorado and Washington State decided it should be legal for adults to use recreational marijuana in private. It is now technically legal in those two states, although there is as yet no way to legally purchase marijuana in either one. Initiative 502 in Washington and Amendment 64 in Colorado have also made it legal to grow hemp.

Washington and Colorado join nine other states where, under state law, the cultivation or research of hemp is to some extent legal: Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia. (Huffington Post). Cultivating hemp in the United States is "illegal under federal law."

Hemp is a strong fiber that has long been used in the maritime industry. Hundreds of years ago, "[e]ach warship and merchant vessel required miles of hempen line and tons of hempen canvas… ." Indeed, it was so important that "[s]hip captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed widely to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands." As late as the second World War, the U.S. government "urged farmers to grow 'Hemp for Victory' … to provide the raw material for ropes, sailors' uniforms and other supplies."

While "farmers were compelled by patriotic duty to grow" hemp in the past, today "federal law … require[s] nearly-impossible-to-obtain permits to grow hemp… ." However, it is legal for American companies to sell hemp products. Hemp can be found in clothing, soaps, paper, and building materials. Raw, shelled hemp seeds are sold as great additions to yogurt and salads. We can put hemp granola bars in our kids' lunches, and pour them a glass of hemp milk.

Where there is a market for a product, there is usually a will to fill it. The USDA has consistently maintained that the "U.S. market for hemp fibers is, and likely will remain, a small, thin market." However, a 2012 report issued by the Congressional Research Services claimed that a "commercial hemp industry in the Untied States could provide opportunities as an economically viable alternative crop for some U.S. growers." (csbj.com). Hemp grows quickly and doesn't require much in the way of water, fertilizers, or pesticides.

In Colorado, sales of legal marijuana are expected to bring in as much as $47 million a year in state and local taxes. Supporters of the hemp industry project that the hemp industry "might be 10 times larger than legal marijuana… ." The United States is "the world's largest consumer of hemp products." It is also "the only industrialized country that bans hemp."

There is at least one farmer in Colorado willing to grow it. Michael Bowman risks the ire of his neighbors: "When they hear that we're growing hemp, they think we're growing marijuana." He risks inviting the attention of the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration: "federal law does not distinguish between hemp and marijuana" and "growing cannabis is a violation of the Controlled Substances Act." At this point, the seeds Bowman plans to sew are "more of a political experiment" than an agricultural one. (NPR).

Bowman is joined by a handful of farmers in Washington. Tom Stahl has said "he'd likely grow [hemp] until federal authorities" warn him not to. Ted Durfey is interested in growing hemp but says, "I'm definitely not going to grow a commodity that's illegal under federal law." (Huffington Post).

The Colorado Legislature must "decide how to regulate hemp" by July 2014. Perhaps it should keep in mind that, when America was young, farmers were "allowed to pay taxes with" hemp.

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Gail Cole
Avalara Author
Gail Cole
Gail Cole
Avalara Author Gail Cole
Gail began researching and writing about sales tax in 2012 and has been fascinated with it ever since. She has a penchant for uncovering unusual tax facts, and endeavors to make complex sales tax laws more digestible for both experts and laypeople.