With a deadline looming at the end of this month in the most dramatic federal-state showdown yet in Colorado over marijuana, a state lawmaker has proposed a bill that would raise another cannabis clash.
Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, has introduced a bill to study using the growing of industrial hemp to clean polluted soil, a process known as phytoremediation. McKinley said there is some evidence that hemp plants can suck toxic substances out of the ground.
“There’s not a whole lot known about it,” he said. “So, this is a pilot program to study it.”
Growing hemp, though, is illegal under federal law without approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which rarely grants permission. Hemp and marijuana are taxonomically identical versions of cannabis plants.
Although hemp advocates argue that hemp and marijuana are the same in the way that Pomeranians and St. Bernards are, a DEA spokeswoman said the growing of any cannabis plant without DEA approval is a felony.
“State law provides no immunity to private persons or state officials who violate federal law,” DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden wrote in an e-mail.
That, however, doesn’t ruffle McKinley. His bill — which is co-sponsored by House Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling — wouldn’t even require researchers to seek federal approval before putting plants in the ground.
“If we worried about what the feds were going to do, we wouldn’t get anything done,” McKinley said. “We just have to go do it ourselves and see what happens.”
Colorado is already in something of a stare-down with the federal government over the state’s medical-marijuana laws. Last month, federal prosecutors sent letters to 23 dispensaries operating in compliance with state law but within 1,000 feet of a school. The dispensaries were given until Feb. 27 to close or face federal criminal or civil punishment.
Hemp advocates have long extolled the virtue of the plant as an agricultural product.
Unlike marijuana, hemp contains very little THC, the chemical that creates marijuana’s high. But, because of the federal prohibitions, all hemp products currently in the U.S. — from hemp clothing to hemp rope to hemp seeds in granola — come from imported sources.
Tom Murphy, the national outreach director for Vote Hemp, said he knows of no one growing industrial hemp legally in the United States.
David West — who, as head of the now-defunct Hawaii Industrial Hemp Research Project, was one of the few people ever to receive DEA approval to grow cannabis — said the process to obtain a license is prohibitively difficult.
“They want to grow it out there?” West said when told of McKinley’s bill. “There’s a fat chance that’s going to happen.”
John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or firstname.lastname@example.org