By John Ingold
The Denver Post
A bill to study the benefits of growing industrial hemp cleared its first hurdle in the state legislature Monday.
The bill, from state Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Cokedale, received unanimous support in the House Local Government Committee despite questions about whether it would create a showdown with the federal government, which considers it illegal to grow hemp. The study, which would be funded with private money, would look at whether industrial hemp is effective at sucking pollutants from the soil, as some research suggests it might be.
“We simply don’t have the data,” said Erik Hunter, a Ph.D. candidate at the Colorado School of Mines who studies using plants to clean soils — a process known as phytoremediation. “We would be creating a new body of data.”
Hunter noted that hemp was planted at the Chernobyl nuclear-disaster site in the hopes of cleaning radiation from the ground. On that premise — and on the potential for other uses of hemp for food, textiles and fuel — lawmakers were intrigued.
“This is fascinating to me,” Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, remarked.
But concerns arose over whether Colorado’s hemp study would be a federally illegal conspiracy. The Drug Enforcement Administration considers hemp and marijuana — hemp’s plant-family twin — to be one and the same, and the cultivation of either without DEA permission is a felony under federal law. Hemp activists argue that it is virtually impossible to get high from hemp.
McKinley’s bill would not require the state to seek DEA permission, which is difficult to obtain.
Lawmakers on the committee questioned whether the bill would authorize illegal activity and whether banks — which have been reluctant to deal with medical-marijuana dispensaries because of federal laws — would be willing to hold the money for the study. “(Would this be a) 10th Amendment charge up the hill?” asked Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, referencing the constitutional states’ rights provision?
While hemp activists at the hearing described it as a legal gray area, McKinley said lawmakers shouldn’t worry too much about the federal response.
“We’re not growing it; we’re studying it,” McKinley said in a rhetorical distinction that drew laughter from fellow lawmakers. McKinley said the study would be small and would seek to grow hemp on only a handful of well-secured, well-regulated acres.
House Bill 1099 still has a long way to go before becoming law. Its next stop is the House Appropriations Committee.
John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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