Esther Honig / KUNC

A computer science major in college, 25-year-old Garrett Hause would fit in at a Silicon Valley startup. But he said he prefers to stay busy and work with his hands, so he decided to do something different.

Last year he took over his grandparents’ farm in Lafayette, Colorado and replaced the fields of alfalfa with five acres of hemp.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may seem like an unlikely champion for an illegal substance, but the Kentucky Republican just added the legalization of marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin, hemp, to the Senate farm bill. The industrial hemp business is increasingly seen as an economic savior and substitute for vulnerable industries like mining, especially in Colorado, one of the first states in the nation to make hemp legal at the state level.

It's officially Hemp History Week. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution that recognizes the “full growth potential of the industrial hemp industry.” But at the state level, real progress for the hemp industry is still all over the map.

Esther Honig

At his booth for the 5th annual NoCo Hemp Exposition in Loveland, Colorado, Scott Leshman, founder of Cannabinoid Creations, pours samples of his signature soda flavor, Cartoon Cereal Crunch. It’s an ode to the popular breakfast cereal, Cap'n Crunch CrunchBerries, with a twist: It contains cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil.  

Luke Runyon / KUNC/Harvest Public Media

Colorado agriculture officials are taking steps to make industrial hemp -- marijuana’s agrarian cousin  -- more mainstream. They’ve certified three hemp seed varieties, becoming the first state in the country to do so.

A seed certification is akin to a stamp of approval, letting farmers know the plant performs well in Colorado’s soil and climate.

The certification also ensures that farmers won’t break federal law by cultivating plants above the legal threshold for THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Hemp that tests above a concentration of 0.3 percent THC must be destroyed, according to state rules. That threshold was set in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

Colorado’s fledgling hemp industry just got one step closer to turning some of the state’s amber waves of grain into fields of emerald green.

State agriculture officials, research scientists at Colorado State University and the state’s Seed Growers Association are launching what they say is the first certified industrial hemp seed program in the country.

Here’s what that means: As soon as spring 2017 hemp growers, established and aspiring, will be able to purchase bags of seed with a state seal of approval guaranteeing that the seeds will grow into plants low in psychoactive compounds and be free of pests and weeds.

Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

Cannabis is beginning to look a lot like a commodity crop.

After spending decades in darkened basements and secreted away on small parcels of land, marijuana growers are commercializing once-illegal plant varieties: industrial hemp, recreational marijuana and medical cannabis.

As more states legalize the growth of certain types of cannabis, those in the industry are turning to traditional farmers for help, to transform the plant from black market scourge into the next big American cash crop.

USDA's About-Face On Organic Hemp Leaves Growers In Limbo

Feb 19, 2016
Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reversed course on its organic certification of industrial hemp operations throughout the country.

A handful of hemp farms, including Colorado-based CBDRx, had secured, or were in the process of securing, certifications from third-party auditors following a directive from the USDA's National Organic Program staff allowing hemp to be certified organic.

"Organic certification of industrial hemp production at this time is premature and could be misleading to certified organic operations," reads a published instruction [.pdf] from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

Update 2.16.2016: The USDA has reversed its decision on certifying organic hemp, our original story continues below.

Colorado is now home to some of the nation’s first certified organic cannabis, which comes with a blessing from federal regulators. CBDRx, a Longmont, Colorado cannabis farm, has secured a certification to market its products with the organic seal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a major coup for the plant’s enthusiasts.

“As long as the industrial hemp is grown according to the Farm Bill, it can be certified organic to the USDA National Organic Program,” wrote Penelope Zuck, the agency’s organic program accreditation manager, in an email correspondence obtained by KUNC.

Catch that? We’re talking about hemp here, which is still considered cannabis under federal law. The distinction, and USDA’s decision to certify it, throw the plant into an even larger legal gray area.

The First Hemp Harvest At Colorado State Is In The Bag

Nov 16, 2015

Researchers at Colorado State University have finished harvesting their first legal test plot of industrial hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis.

This was the first year CSU was able to secure both federal drug permits and bags of seed to carry out hemp experiments. Researchers planted varieties from all over the world inside a university-owned corn field in eastern Larimer County in a bid to see which would grow best in Colorado’s soil and climate.