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UNRAVELING HEMP DEBATE

Editorial
Denver Post

February 4, 1997

Hemp, as a botanical relative of marijuana, is illegal in Colorado, but its appeal as an industrial crop is such that a bill to allow its commercial cultivation is headed for the legislature again this session, despite failure of a similar bill last year.

Cultivated for centuries as the main source of fiber for rope-making, hemp has seeds rich in resinous oils widely used in paint, varnish and soap manufacture, and its long bast fibers have recently found new uses in fabric, fiberboard and paper-making.

This commercial hemp plant, sometimes growing to 10, feet is easily distinguished from marijuana, its smaller and more delicate relative, and Colorado's agricultural community, always on the lookout for new cash crops, would like to see a pilot project to determine if industrial-grade hemp can be grown here profitably.

Advocates also point out that industrial hemp contains far less THC, a hallucinogenic chemical, than the marijuana plant grown solely for its THC content.

Foes of illegal drugs are far from reassured. Last year, when then Sen. Lloyd Casey, D-Northglenn, brought a packet of industrial hemp -- straws, stems and the like -- to the statehouse to display at a hearing on the hemp bill he was sponsoring, a Denver policeman on duty at the Capitol promptly seized the bundle, and later an anti-drug crusader filed a complaint against Casey for introducing the hemp bill before the Senate.

The bill died in Senate committee and Casey didn't seek re-election last November, but newly elected Rep. Kay Alexander, R-Montrose, plans to introduce a similar bill in the House during this session.

The Casey bill called for no more than 0.05 percent THC content in industrial hemp, and at that level the plants have virtually no intoxication potential.

Alexander's bill provides for keeping THC levels well below those of drug-yielding plants and would create a commission to study ways to further reduce THC and perhaps genetically alter the industrial plant's appearance to make it even easier to tell from marijuana.

Industrial grade hemp is now grown in Canada, Europe and China, and in terms of soil and moisture requirements seems to be compatible with Colorado's croplands. Its potential as an alternative source for paper and fiberboard is expanding. Properly supervised and tested, it would add nothing to the illegal drug trade, and if test crops proved viable, it could bolster the state's agricultural output.

The legislature should allow this to happen. Historically, hemp was an important cash crop in America, being grown by such notables as George Washington and Henry Clay. To prejudice the modern hemp crop's potential with the taint of its infamous relative would be foolish.