Ballot Initiative Could Determine Fate of Colorado’s Hemp Industry

Voters will decide on a little-noticed ballot initiative in Colorado on Election Day that could determine whether the state’s burgeoning hemp crop continues to lead the pack, or is curbed as other states press ahead.

It’s an unusual situation: Coloradans defined the THC content of hemp as part of the 2012 constitutional amendment that legalized both cannabis and hemp — it must contain .3 % THC or less. Because only Colorado voters can make changes to the state Constitution, the state legislature voted earlier this year to add a ballot question, Amendment X, to repeal the definition of hemp in the state Constitution so that state lawmakers could have more flexibility on the THC level in the future.

This is an anticipatory move as lawmakers in Congress will soon consider removing hemp as a controlled substance through the 2018 Farm Bill, and Colorado lawmakers want to remain compliant with any change to federal law. While other states and the federal government are now also working with .3 % as the benchmark, lawmakers are worried a sudden change would put the state at a disadvantage — a federal change on acceptable THC levels in hemp would mean the state could be stuck with a hemp crop that is either no longer competitive or no longer legal.

For example, if Congress changed the federal definition of hemp to mandate a .2 % THC level, a hemp crop that was developed at exactly the .3 % strain would be useless. If Congress gives the industry and farmers more breathing room at a higher percentage, say 1 %, Colorado’s hemp crop wouldn’t be as competitive as other states that had more flexibility.

“It could have a dire effect on the state of Colorado” if the federal statute changes the amount of THC without a similar change at the state level, said Tim Gordon, the CEO of CBDRx, a hemp and CBD production company in Boulder.

In their 2012 legalization ballot initiative, cannabis advocates in Colorado pushed for a constitutional amendment because, as the first state in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, they wanted to make it harder for opponents to undo the will of the voters, said Hunter Buffington, the executive director of the Colorado Hemp Industries Association. Defining hemp and its THC level “was protectionist to make sure the state had control over that and [they] put it into the Constitution in a way the federal government couldn’t argue with,” Buffington told Cannabis Wire.

Farmers had “a painful learning curve” as they sought to breed and develop the plant to get as close as they could to that specific level of THC, Buffington told Cannabis Wire, adding, “we lost thousands of acres” of crops that needed to be destroyed. Developing a new hemp strain would be similarly difficult, she said.

Colorado, like other states, passed a law to begin a pilot program to grow hemp after such state research programs were made possible under the 2014 Farm Bill. As of last year, the state had registered nearly 12,000 acres for hemp production, with Kentucky developing the second-most at around 3,200 acres planted, according to those states respective departments of agriculture. The Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation, passed every five years, that governs all manner of agriculture and food policy. Hemp legalization — which is now Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s prized bipartisan priority in the 2018 Farm Bill — would mean a new crop staple for farmers and a mainstreaming of hemp-based products.

The new ballot initiative, Amendment X, was introduced and pushed by Republican state Sen. Vicki Marble to ensure that Colorado is in a good position to take advantage of what would be a hemp boom if it is legalized at the federal level, Rep. Jeni James Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat, told Cannabis Wire. Marble could not be reached for comment.

Arndt and Gordon said that they have not heard any indication that congressional leaders are seeking changes to the definition of hemp that would hurt Colorado, but they recognize anything could happen as Farm Bill negotiations get underway, and they want to make sure the state can respond.

“At first I didn’t want to move the [THC] level,” said Arndt, explaining that she worried the state would get dragged into an argument over marijuana versus hemp.

But she soon decided Marble made a good case that the state didn’t want to get stuck unable to change its hemp definition between elections. “We want to do this just in case the feds move,” Arndt said.

The issue, undoubtedly, is a confusing one. Arndt said that because ballot initiatives pushed by advocacy groups are often backed by expensive advertising and media campaigns, the issues involved become well-known and debated. In this case, because it was an act by the legislature, Amendment X has gone under the radar.

Either way, Colorado lawmakers and hemp advocates aren’t too worried yet. Buffington said her group is planning an education initiative around the ballot initiative to make sure voters know a “yes” vote on the question would be good for the hemp industry.

That said, Gordon was blunt when asked what would happen to his company if Congress mandates a new THC level and Colorado is stuck with a crop of useless hemp.

“I’ll tell you what, I’m closing up my shop,” he said.

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