“Spark the Discussion” is a monthly Legal Connection column highlighting the hottest trends in the emerging field of medical marijuana law. This column is brought to you by Vicente Sederberg, LLC, a full-service, community-focused medical marijuana law firm.
By Brian Vicente, Esq. and Rachelle Yeung
In the final weeks of the Colorado legislative session, while House Democrats and Republicans were fiercely battling over same-sex civil unions, a landmark piece of drug policy reform legislation snuck through the Legislature nearly unopposed. The “Hemp Bill,” or HB 12-1099, sets up the framework for the study and use of industrial hemp, and seeks to use this “taboo” crop to clean up contaminated soil through a process called phytoremediation.
The passage of the Hemp Bill is a victory in a 70-year long battle against the prohibition of marijuana and a turning point towards a more sensible approach to drug policy. The regulation of marijuana is a topic of increasing importance to Colorado voters because of Amendment 64, the statewide ballot initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol, which will be voted on in November. Amendment 64 would also make Colorado the first state in the nation to regulate the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp.
Historically, hemp production was encouraged in the United States – from being one of the most important crops in colonial America to being promoted by the federal government in a World War II film called “Hemp for Victory.” However, growing hemp has been outlawed since the Controlled Substances Act, because of its close association with marijuana.
Though it shares the same genus (“Cannabis sativa L.”) as its better-known cousin, industrial hemp is distinguished from marijuana by its low concentration of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC. Industrial hemp contains no more than three-tenths of a percent of THC.
Several factors make Colorado a particularly compelling candidate for hemp-based phytoremediation. Extensive mining throughout the state has left vast tracts of land contaminated with toxic waste. Phytoremediation would remove those toxins from the ground, which could then be used for agriculture and cattle grazing which are cornerstones of the state’s economy. Finally, a plant requiring very little water to grow – like hemp – is a necessity in a water-constrained state like Colorado.
The use of industrial hemp in phytoremediation is not entirely novel. In 1986, the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant caused severe radioactive contamination in areas up to 100 km away. Soil in that area became saturated with toxic waste and heavy-metals which rendered it useless for agriculture. In 1998, a group called PHYTOTECH began growing hemp in the area to decontaminate the soil and, according to Slavik Dushenkov, a research scientist with the company, “Hemp prov[ed] to be one of the best phytoremediative plants we have been able to find.”
Activists hope that phytoremediation is just the introduction of industrial hemp into mainstream use. Hemp is cheap and easy to grow, requiring few pesticides and no herbicides. It can be used in textiles, construction materials, paper products, and even body care products. Hemp seed is considered a “superfood” – a good source of protein and dietary fiber, high in B-vitamins and essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp can even be reduced to ethanol and biofuel, a boon to our petroleum-addicted society. Some activists go so far as calling hemp “the plant that could save the world.”
A similar bill was introduced in the Colorado Legislature in 1994 by then-Senator Loyd Casey, but received only a single, sad vote before disappearing into history. If Governor Hickenlooper gives this year’s HB-1099 his stamp of approval – and given its support in the Legislature, there is no reason he would not – Colorado could become the first state in the nation to grow industrial hemp since the 1930s.