May 8th, 2015 – Colorado’s Amendment 64 is known nationwide as the ballot item that legalized marijuana here, turning the state into one of the country’s test sites for decriminalizing and regulating the use of pot for people 21 and over.
But Amendment 64 legalized more than just pot. It also made legal growing industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana that is poised to create a new industry in Colorado. While they both come from the same plant, different varieties are used for marijuana and for hemp. They are different both in their botanic composition and their cultivation, according to the Rocky Mountain Hemp Association.
Hemp has no psychoactive effects because of its low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in marijuana that produces such effects. Even so, hemp was outlawed at the federal level in 1957.
A large variety of products can be made from hemp, including food products, nutritional supplements, paper, clothing, composite board and biofuel. Manufacturing these products has created an opening for Colorado businesses to take root.
It takes four to five months to grow a hemp crop from seed outdoors in Colorado, said Dani Billings of Colorado Hemp Project, which works to assist farmers with hemp cultivation. The project grew a 2.5-acre crop of hemp last summer, she said, as much as their supply of seed would allow.
That crop produced more than 2,000 pounds of seed that will be used to plant this year’s crop. About one dozen farmers in Colorado are involved with the project, Billings said. These farmers are established, with crops of wheat, corn or soybeans, but want to see what hemp can do for their business, she said.
Colorado Hemp Project also has a 1 million-square-foot greenhouse where it grows hemp throughout the year. The crop takes little water, Billings said, a benefit in Colorado’s arid climate. Last year’s crop was watered only three times for the duration of the summer.
After the hemp is harvested, it is sold to processors such as PureVision Technology, a Fort Lupton company led by Ed Lehrburger, who has been refining various types of biomass, including corn stalks and wheat straw for more than 20 years.
PureVision processes all of its biomass by running it through a patented machine called a continuous countercurrent reactor, Lehrburger said. During this process, the biomass, whether wheat straw or hemp stalks, is converted into three products that are then sold to manufacturers.
The first, pulp, is used for paper products while the second, lignin, can be used for adhesives and plastics. The third, sugars, can be fermented into ethanol and used as fuel, Lehrburger said.
Seeing the opportunity presented by the legalization of industrial hemp, PureVision five months ago created a subsidiary company called PureHemp that processes hemp exclusively, Lehrburger said.
The response has been “overwhelming,” Lehrburger said. He and the two other members of his business development team have been contacted by farmers, entrepreneurs and manufacturers all seeking to join in on the activity around hemp.
PureHemp received just under a ton of hemp from a grower in Sterling last week and is expecting another truckload later in May. The company has started processing what it has and could have its hemp byproducts ready to sell in June.
That’s where Morris Beegle of Colorado Hemp Co. comes in. A longtime hemp advocate, Beegle began his company in 2012 after Amendment 64 was passed. Colorado Hemp Co., based in Loveland, has a goal of reintroducing hemp as a commodity, and is involved in both product sales and events management. It held the second-annual NoCoHemp Expo at the beginning of April, with more than 70 vendors present and 1,250 attendees.
While Colorado Hemp Co. promotes all things hemp, the focus right now is on paper and printing, Beegle said. Using hemp pulp for paper provides an alternative to wood pulp, which conserves trees and doesn’t use the chemicals included in most of today’s paper.
Beegle predicts an entire industry around hemp in the coming years, but it still has some challenges to overcome. Stigma around hemp is still widespread, even in marijuana-friendly Colorado, Beegle said. Many think that hemp and marijuana are the same thing, and misinformation is keeping legislative efforts to broaden the legality of hemp from moving forward, he said.