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Hemp entrepreneurs hear the benefits — and challenges — of booming industry at Colorado expo

The head of an international natural products association told a crowded room of hemp entrepreneurs Friday that their industry is forecast to generate as much as $45 billion by 2024 — but big questions and regulatory hurdles loom.

Judith Kohler, The Denver Post

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, left, and Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, were among the speakers at the sixth annual NoCo Hemp Expo on Friday, March 29, 2019, in Denver.

Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, told people at the sixth annual NoCo Hemp Expo in Denver that the fledgling but expanding industry is in a similar position as the natural products industry was about three decades ago. That’s when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, providing a path forward for businesses.

The 2018 federal farm bill legalized the production of hemp, removing it from the list of controlled substances and placing it under the Food and Drug Administration’s control.

“This is your big moment. This created a lawful pathway,” Israelsen said. “But it didn’t solve all the problems you’re facing now. You’re facing this really important moment of, ‘Now, what do we do?’”

Some of the questions stem from the fact that the FDA last year approved cannabidiol oil — CBD — derived from marijuana for the treatment of two rare forms of epilepsy. Part of what the FDA is considering as it develops regulations for hemp is how to treat CBD oil extracted from hemp.

Hemp and marijuana are in the cannabis family. However, hemp has negligible amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that creates a high.

The farm bill caps the amount of THC allowed in industrial hemp to 0.3 percent.

“I think the single most pressing issue is to try to get a resolution of what is the regulatory status, generally, for CBD so the FDA can decide how do we proceed to protect the consumer, protect the drug approval process, but also not deny the consumer access to a product that they feel is important and useful,” Israelsen said.

Chase Terwilliger, CEO of Denver-based CBDistillery, an online retailer, acknowledged the challenges ahead as federal officials wrestle with how to regulate hemp. But the farm bill was a huge milestone, he added.

“Passage of the farm bill was the biggest boulder we had to break through, to take hemp off the controlled substances list,” Terwilliger said.

CBDistillery is continuing development of processes to ensure the safety and quality of its products, including the use of an outside auditor to track any concerns or problems with the products, Terwilliger said.

Gov. Jared Polis, who championed the hemp industry when he was in Congress, joined Israelsen on stage at the expo, which was a sell-out at 10,000-plus registrations. Polis called Colorado “the epicenter of industrial hemp.”

“We are the No. 1 state in the union for hemp production,” Polis said. “Our state agencies understand the industry. We have the most talented and knowledgeable hemp workers. We have the most stable and effective regulatory framework in the country.”