(AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post file)

Healing power of hemp? Science vs. semantics

Hemp farmers hold up their crop, marijuana’s non-mind altering cousin, as an industrial miracle for its sustainability and myriad processing applications.

Could mainstream medicine be the next frontier for hemp?

Traditional doctors — some of whom boast serious star power — have increasingly embraced marijuana as a powerful weapon in treating such potentially devastating diseases as cancer and epilepsy. That notoriety paired with the explosion of cannabis entrepreneurship has spurred some legalization activists to sing the praises of “medical hemp.”

While we do know the nutritional benefits of hemp — a protein- and antioxidant-rich plant that shares many of the properties of marijuana, namely the existence of certain chemical compounds called cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD) but minus the stoney tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — industry insiders say the science studying hemp as medicine remains thin.

Key to this issue is the THC content of the crop in question, and what happens to those plants after the harvest. Federal law currently dictates that hemp is any cannabis plant with a THC level of three-tenths (0.3) of a percent or less. For international shipping — and nearly all hemp came from overseas or across our northern border until very recently — the THC content must be one-tenth (0.1) of a percent or less.

These numbers also factor into how processed hemp products are regulated for the consumer. In Colorado, hemp is regulated (less stringently than medical marijuana) by the Department of Agriculture. Hardcore hemp activists want to keep it that way to avoid the regulatory acrobatics faced by medical marijuana producers and retail outlets.

“There is no definition for medical hemp anywhere,” says Veronica Carpio of Grow Hemp Colorado, which is licensed to distribute hemp seed. Carpio says she has refrained from selling hemp seed until the Department of Agriculture sanctions hemp-growing operations.

“I err on the side of caution, to help everyone be compliant,” Carpio says. “But people are calling me for ‘medical hemp seeds.’ I tell them, no, I don’t sell medical hemp seed. I sell industrial hemp seed.”

Carpio, who makes Colorado Hemp Coffee, worries that the whole idea of medicinal hemp could open up a new regulatory can of worms. Consider that the Drug Enforcement Administration has zero power to regulate industrial hemp.

All things Hemp: Learn more about growing hemp in Colorado and read reviews for products that utilize this cannabis cousin of marijuana.

This is all legal mumbo-jumbo to consumers who seek out hemp products because they believe that hemp heals. The popular Dew Drops Hemp Oil Supplement, for instance, is a product sold online under Colorado’s Dixie Botanicals brand (but now technically owned by Medical Marijuana Inc. out of California). Dew Drops is a hemp oil tincture marketed as promoting “overall wellness and relief from the effects of everyday stress and anxiety.”

Joe Hodas, spokesman for Dixie Elixers and Edibles, toes the company line when it comes to the science: “We are not doctors, and this has not been proven through any sort of federal testing.”

The Dew Drops webpage includes the standard FDA disclosure:
“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These products and statements are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

But anecdotally, Hodas says customers who use Dew Drops report relief from pain, sleep disorders, anxiety, digestive problems and even Parkinson’s Disease.

“I see so many emails from people who are not only benefiting from (Dew Drops), but are desperate to get the product,” Hodas says.

Dew Drops is manufactured using concentrated hemp oil. On the other hand, the Michigan Hemp Co. out of Grand Rapids, makers of several hemp supplements under the Bluegrass Natural brand, is doing its science research with plant materials in the hopes of deleting the hemp-versus-marijuana regulatory issue from the equation.

“Our products are made with industrial hemp, but we add terpenoids and cannabinoids from other plants,” says company founder Joe Brown. “We basically rebuild the cannabis plant with other compounds… to put the CBD back into the product without having to worry about legal trouble” or THC.

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Some cannabis purists take issue with such scientific splicing because they believe that CBD is only potent when it’s accompanied by THC. However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Like in Charlotte’s Web, the superstar of medical marijuana plants that has very low THC and very high CBD content.

Charlotte’s Web is a marijuana-hemp hybrid created by the illustrious Stanley brothers (Joel, Jesse, Jon, Jordan, Jared and Josh) in response to the need for medical marijuana to treat severe myoclonic epilepsy in children. Josh Stanley is quoted in a report by The Huffington Post saying that the lucrative family strain contains five-tenths (0.5) of a percent of THC.

Nonetheless, according to Colorado Department of Agriculture records, the Stanleys have a license to grow industrial hemp.

But it is unclear how that license is being utilized. Department of Agriculture regulations include random sampling of hemp fields; samples testing higher than 0.3 percent THC are in violation. At press time, the family had not responded to an interview request sent to their Colorado Springs-based medical nonprofit, the Realm of Caring.

Map: Colorado recreational marijuana shops and medical dispensaries

But one person who aspires to make entrepreneurship as seamless as possible for the Stanleys and anyone else working with hemp is politically-minded Colorado farmer Michael Bowman. He plans to cultivate “some small acreage of Charlotte’s Web.”

“The core challenge is, under federal law, hemp is still considered a Schedule I drug,” Bowman says. “So whether you’re trying to borrow money from a bank or simply trying to grow, we have these conflicts between state and federal law.”

Marijuana legalization opened the door for research and development around hemp, including the discovery of the powerful medical benefits of Charlotte’s Web, Bowman says, adding that kind of innovation must continue.

The United States “decimated the hemp industry seven decades ago, so we’re playing catch-up,” he says. “We want to make sure that all of the entrepreneurs who want to rebuild this industry can do so without unnecessary constraints.”

“Hemp is something that we should be embracing,” Bowman concludes. “We need to be able to let farmers experiment without fear of incarceration or permit issues.”