Many will remember actor Chris Tucker’s character “Smokey” in the iconic pop-culture movie “Friday”. Extolling the benefits of marijuana, Smokey became the poster child for what every parent feared about marijuana. Those fears have made it difficult to have rational conversations about the legalization of marijuana or any other product, like Hemp, that derives from the Cannabaceae family of plants. With more than 170 species grouped into 11 groups to include Cannabis (marijuana and hemp), there are often misunderstandings regarding the difference in purpose, cultivation, and application of these plants, even in legislatures.
In 2010, I was a part of a democratic group of legislators that introduced a bill to form a study committee to review scientific and business findings of industrial hemp as an alternative fuel and motor oil, as well as for uses like seed and industrial hemp oil in snack foods, body care products, and food supplements. My work on the uses and potential validation of industrial hemp has taken me to rural communities, tribal lands, and urban centers. Over the years, I found there are significant benefits of hemp that include job creation, positive ecological and economic benefits. Utilizing industrialized farming of hemp, we have the ability to lift struggling communities out of poverty and make an immediate difference in the lives of residents.
It has been a long journey to get this point, but finally a bi-partisan group of legislators, along with a coalition of businesses, farmers, nutritionists, and activists recently testified before the Senate Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee regarding the economic and sustainable agriculture practices offered by industrial hemp. The groups appeared to discuss Senate Bill 119, of which I am a co-sponsor. The bill requires the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to issue licenses that authorize the growing and processing of industrial hemp. The work and evolution of the legislation mirror the national pathway to address federal restrictions on the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp.
Outlawed for more than 80 years, there have been a number of federal and state legislators that have actively introduced bills in support of industrial hemp farming. In fact, Colorado introduced the first state-level bill in 1995. Currently, there are 14 states that have legalized the growing and processing of industrial hemp and hemp seeds. Overall, 33 states have introduced some form of legislation to do the same.
Both marijuana and hemp remain illegal under the federal controlled substances act. There are also systemic challenges associated with state legalization. Under the former Obama administration, there was a policy known as the “Cole memo” that suspended most cannabis enforcement. The current Trump administration and Department of Justice under the leadership of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions may likely take a different stance. However, most agree that hemp should be excluded from any such application of the federal law in the future. SB 119 is a well-thought-out bill, with built-in protections, to create a win-win situation for the state, taxpayers and the environment.