Raju Chebium, GANNETT, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Farm legislation breezing through Congress could make northern Colorado the nation's leader in the cultivation, study and use of industrial hemp.
The farm bill provision authored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would allow colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies to grow and do research on the crop without being penalized by the federal government.
The provision applies only to states where industrial hemp is legal, Polis said Wednesday after the House approved the five-year, $500 billion farm bill by a vote of 251-166.
Industrial hemp cultivation is legal in Colorado, Oregon, California, Kentucky, Vermont, Montana, West Virginia, North Dakota and Maine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The plant is used to make rope, soaps, clothes, auto parts and numerous other products that are common throughout the U.S. But the hemp in them comes from Canada, Turkey or some other country
Growing or using it is illegal under federal law. The farm bill provision wouldn't overturn that prohibition, but would block federal authorities from cracking down on hemp farmers, researchers and higher-education institutions in areas where the crop is legal, Polis said.
Colorado State University has expressed interest in hemp research, and the farm bill would allow officials to look for grants, recruit faculty and set up labs without fear of losing federal funding, Polis said.
"We're hoping northern Colorado could become a real center for information and technology related to domestic industrial hemp production," he said. "There's going to be rapid progress ... over the next decade and we hope that a lot of that can occur at CSU."
University officials didn't immediately comment when reached Wednesday.
However, the state's public university system has expressed concern about losing federal funding if an institution works on hemp even though that's legal in Colorado.
In a letter to Polis last May, Dorothy Horrell, who chairs the Colorado State University System Board of Governors, wrote: "If and when federal laws change to eliminate hemp as a controlled substance, then our institutions will determine whether research relating to this plant aligns with their research goals."
Federal law treats industrial hemp and marijuana as dangerous drugs. Though the industrial variety looks like its marijuana-yielding cousin, supporters note that it has just a trace of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the narcotic in pot.
The farm bill provision specifies that the hemp whose cultivation would be allowed can't have more than 0.3 percent of THC. State officials would be required to regulate hemp farmers.
Polis wants northern Colorado to become a major supplier and CSU to lead the way in finding new uses for the plant, which has a long history in the USA. Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated it and hemp was used to make early American flags, he said.
Though the farm bill includes his hemp language, Polis voted against the legislation citing a host of other problems, including an $8.6 billion cut in the food stamp program.
Industrial hemp has support in the Senate as well. Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Kentucky Republicans Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell - the Senate minority leader - introduced legislation last year that would allow hemp cultivation and use where it's legal.
The farm bill is expected to pass the Senate in the next few days, and President Obama is expected to sign it into law.