As with many emerging industries, getting ahead in the industrial-hemp industry often involves hiring the people who created the original regulations. In legal marijuana, for example, everyone from former state legislators to past Marijuana Enforcement Division officials have moved to the business side, helping companies and clients stay on top of Colorado’s strict cannabis laws.
One of the largest moves from government to the hemp industry (so far, at least) came last month, when Maureen West jumped from managing the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp Program to take a job as compliance officer for hemp-oil company Functional Remedies.
As head of the CDA’s hemp program from 2016 to 2019, West witnessed the recent hemp and CBD booms in Colorado and had to deal with such issues as hot hemp with too much THC and lack of guidance from the Food and Drug Administration. Those challenges didn’t prevent Colorado from leading the nation in hemp farming acreage during that span, however.
We recently caught up with West to learn more about the future of the plant now that it’s legal at the federal level.
Westword: How would you compare Colorado’s hemp industry and regulations with those of other states? I hear some are relatively friendly, like Oregon, while others, like South Dakota, aren’t so much.
Maureen West: Over the course of my career as the head of the CDA Industrial Hemp Program, we built one of the most robust state-level industrial-hemp programs in the country. We worked closely with farmers across the state and listened to their needs and concerns. Hemp could be the next big cash crop that saves small farmers across America, and we are proving that to be true right here in Colorado at Functional Remedies.
What have you learned about hemp since you started at the CDA, and how did that help you with your new job?
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Hemp has been a product in America’s history since the founding fathers; George Washington famously grew hemp. But today’s hemp landscape, because of stigma and prohibition, is confusing without clear guidelines at the state and federal levels. The work we did at the CDA was to put those guidelines in place to not only help legitimate businesses bring good jobs to Colorado, but also to protect consumers from products that they shouldn’t be ingesting. We did this all when there was no real blueprint. So my role will be to help Functional Remedies navigate, influence and stay within those guidelines, even as they are being created.
What challenges are hemp farmers and product makers facing today that the public might not know about?
One of the biggest challenges right now is that we aren’t getting any clear guidance from the FDA. This is leaving a huge gap for illegitimate companies to compete with legitimate companies, all while consumers lose trust with hemp or CBD products. The saying goes, ‘A bad apple spoils the bunch.’ With tighter regulations, it’s much easier to find and toss those bad apples.
Is the 0.3 THC limit a looming problem for hemp farmers as it becomes legal nationwide?
The 0.3 percent THC limit has already presented problems for companies shipping hemp across state borders. The hemp industry doesn’t have standard testing protocols across the United States. In part, we need the FDA or Congress to help set those standards. Another solution would be to allow an acceptable range. Plants are plants; the top of the plant can test differently than the bottom, and two plants of the same strain could test differently.
How ethical do you think the CBD industry really is? We hear a lot of snake-oil stories, but a lot of companies are operating in unregulated markets.
The problem is that we don’t have any real consistent regulations across the board, and many people and companies are happy to jump on what they see is a trend or act within that gray area. This is why it’s so incredibly important that we put them in place to protect consumers and help legitimate businesses thrive.
How far behind is America’s hemp industry from Europe’s or Canada’s?
America is just starting to overcome the decades of stigma against hemp because of its ties with cannabis. However, we are moving incredibly quickly as we see states enacting their own hemp laws across the U.S. The faster we can build this momentum and gain additional clarity from the FDA and Congress, the faster we can create a globally competitive hemp industry.