By JACK HEALY
Published: August 5, 2013
SPRINGFIELD, Colo. — Along the plains of eastern Colorado, on a patch of soil where his father once raised alfalfa, Ryan Loflin is growing a leafy green challenge to the nation’s drug laws.
His fields are sown with hemp, a tame cousin of marijuana that was once grown openly in the United States but is now outlawed as a controlled substance. Last year, as Colorado voters legalized marijuana for recreational use, they also approved a measure laying a path for farmers like Mr. Loflin, 40, to once again grow and harvest hemp, a potentially lucrative crop that can be processed into goods as diverse as cooking oil, clothing and building material. This spring, he became the first farmer in Colorado to publicly sow his fields with hemp seed.
“I’m not going to hide anymore,” he said one recent morning after striding through a sea of hip-high plants growing fast under the sun.
Mr. Loflin’s 60-acre experiment is one of an estimated two dozen small hemp plantings sprouting in Colorado. Hemp cultivation presents a vexing problem for the federal government, which draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana, as it decides how to respond to a new era of legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington State.
State agencies have worked quickly to create new rules, licenses and taxes for hemp and recreational marijuana. Many towns have voted to ban the new retailers; others have decided to regulate them. Denver, for example, is proposing a 5 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.
Colorado has set up an industrial hemp commission to write rules to register hemp farmers and charge them a fee to grow the crop commercially.
“It’s something that can be copied and used nationally,” said Michael Bowman, a farmer in northeastern Colorado who sits on the state hemp commission. “We’re trying to build a legitimate industry.”
The state will also be able to randomly test crops to ensure that they contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, far below the level found in marijuana.
Opponents say that hemp and marijuana are essentially the same plant and that both contain the same psychoactive substance. But supporters say that comparing hemp with potent strains of marijuana is like comparing a nonalcoholic beer with a bottle of vodka.
Still, farmers and marijuana advocates worry: will drug agents stand on the sidelines and allow Colorado and Washington to pursue their own experiments with legalization? Or will the federal government crack down to assert its authority over drug policies?
A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Denver said hemp farmers were “not on our radar,” but R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Obama administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, has offered stern words against both marijuana and hemp, saying that no matter what states did, the plants were still illegal in the federal government’s view.
“Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant,” Mr. Kerlikowske wrote in response to a 2011 petition that sought to legalize hemp cultivation. “While most of the THC in cannabis plants is concentrated in the marijuana, all parts of the plant, including hemp, can contain THC, a Schedule I controlled substance.”
Lately, hemp has been tiptoeing toward the agricultural mainstream, gaining support from farmers’ trade groups and a wide array of politicians in statehouses and in Washington. In the Republican-controlled House, a provision tucked into the farm bill would let universities in hemp-friendly states grow small plots for research.
A handful of states, from liberal Vermont to conservative North Dakota and Kentucky, have voted to allow commercial hemp. In Vermont, any farmers who want to register as hemp growers under a new state program have to sign a form acknowledging that they risk losing their agricultural subsidies, farm equipment and livelihoods if federal agents decide to swoop in.
Every year, the federal authorities seize and destroy millions of marijuana plants — a crackdown that has rattled the medical marijuana industry in California — but the pace of seizures has dropped sharply in recent years. In 2012, federal officials reported that 3.9 million cannabis plants had been destroyed under D.E.A. eradication efforts. A year earlier, officials said they had eradicated 6.7 million plants.
Beyond the risk of federal raids and seizures, Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, said the market for hemp goods is still vanishingly small and questioned whether it could really be a panacea for farmers.
“Hemp is the redheaded stepchild of marijuana policy, and probably for good reason,” said Mr. Sabet, who is now the director of the Drug Policy Institute. “In a world with finite capacity to handle drug problems, my advice would be for people to think less about an insignificant issue like hemp and more about the very real issues of drug addiction, marijuana commercialization and glamorization, and how to make our policies work better.”
Even without the threat of federal raids, transforming hemp into a cash crop will be like asking a clear sky for rain. Viable seeds are illegal and scarce. Few working farmers or experts in the United States have any expertise in growing hemp. And there is basically no infrastructure to process the plants into legal components like oil, fibers and proteins.
In Colorado, Jason Lauve, the executive director of Hemp Cleans, an advocacy group, said he has spoken with about two dozen small farmers and landowners who are cautiously growing their first hemp crops.
“We’re really walking gently,” Mr. Lauve said. “We don’t want to put people at risk. We want to see how much states’ rights really protect us, versus the jurisdiction of the federal government.”
Even here, farmers like Mr. Loflin are walking a precarious line. Although Colorado voters opened the door to hemp farming last year, the state warned would-be hemp farmers in May that they would not be authorized to plant until early in 2014.
But this spring, Mr. Loflin decided it was time. For years, he had read about how hemp could replenish undernourished soil and be woven and squeezed into a wide array of products. He drinks a shot of hemp oil for his health every day — “It tastes kind of like grass” — and believes the plant could one day lift the fortunes of struggling small farmers.
He spent the winter assembling a seed collection from suppliers in Britain, Canada, China and Germany, where hemp is legal. They entered the country via U.P.S., labeled “bird seed” or “toasted hemp seed.” One bag was seized by customs officials, he said. Some 1,500 pounds of seeds were not.
At the end of June, with more than $15,000 invested in the venture, he planted his crop. He said he alerted his neighbors and has not gotten any complaints from people around Springfield, or from federal officials.
When Mr. Loflin visits the farm from his home in western Colorado, he half-expects to see D.E.A. cars racing down Highway 160 to burn down his crop before harvest. But he believes he can stake a living in hemp’s oily seeds and versatile fibers. He has gotten tired of his day job building ski homes in the mountains. To him, hemp’s outlaw status is just another hazard of starting a business.
“It’s well worth the risk,” he said. “It’s hemp. Come on, it just needs to be done.”