Weed 101: Colorado agriculture agency shares pot know-how

DENVER — North Carolina wants to know if marijuana could one day replace tobacco as a cash crop. Louisiana is wondering how pot holds up in high humidity. And Washington state has questions about water supplies for weed.

Colorado agriculture officials this week briefed officials from about a dozen states — some that have legalized weed, others that joked their states will legalize pot "when hell freezes over" — on the basics of marijuana farming and swapped stories about regulating a crop that the federal government still considers illegal.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture also is working on the world's first government-produced guidelines on growing marijuana. There's no shortage of how-to books catering to pot growers both in and out of the black market, but Colorado's forthcoming guidebook aims to apply established agronomy practices to the production of marijuana.

"When you start with no knowledge at all, it's rough," said Mitch Yergert, head of Colorado's Division of Plant Industry, an agency within the Agriculture Department that regulates marijuana production.

Yergert conceded that Colorado agriculture officials ignored marijuana entirely for more than a dozen years, from the time voters in the state approved medical pot in 2000 until recreational pot shops started opening in 2014.

"Nobody in our agency ever grew marijuana, so how are we supposed to develop best practices?" Yergert said.

But marijuana's commercial popularity, coupled with increasing concern over pesticides and unsafe growing conditions, forced the department to stop considering marijuana a running joke and start seeing it as a commercial crop in need of regulation.

Colorado sold about a billion dollars' worth of marijuana last year, making it a cash crop, the same as many others.

Now, the agriculture department is sharing what it has learned about weed with other agencies.

Speaking at a recent soil-conservation conference in Denver, Yergert briefed other state agriculture officials on how to inspect marijuana and hemp growers, and just as important, how to regulate a plant that's illegal under federal law.

"You kinda gotta get your mind around it," Yergert said.

The visiting agriculture officials toured a large Denver pot-growing warehouse, where a grower showed them the plant's entire cycle, starting as clones in one room before getting transplanted to bigger tubs.

The grower, Tim Cullen, also showed the officials how the plant is trimmed and its psychoactive buds dried for smoking. Finally, the farm regulators saw how marijuana waste — errant leaves and such — are rendered unusable before being thrown away.

"This is blowing my mind right now," said Erica Pangelinan of the Northern Guam Soil and Water Conservation District. Pangelinan was using her cellphone to snap photos of wooden frames used to hold drying marijuana.

Guam allows medical marijuana, but many states on the tour don't. Still, the visiting agriculture officials say they need to be prepared in case laws change to allow pot-growing at home.

"We're just looking to see what's ahead," said Pat Harris, director of North Carolina's Division of Soil & Water Conservation.

Some states on the tour plan to grow pot themselves.

"We're getting in the marijuana business in Louisiana, so we need to know what we're doing," said Brad Spicer of the state's Office of Soil & Water Conservation, where the Legislature has authorized two universities to grow the plant for medical use and research.

Yergert warned the agriculture officials that regulating weed still isn't easy and that they should be prepared for pushback from their own staffs.

"Our guys were saying, 'I can't pick my kids up from school because I smell like pot,'" Yergert said.

Another problem? Stony silence from federal agencies that agriculture offices usually turn to for help.

"It hasn't gotten a lot more warm and fuzzy," Yergert said. "I think they look at us as, 'What an annoyance!' I mean, they deal with drug smugglers and international cartels, and here's the Colorado Department of Ag coming wanting a permit for something."

Cullen, the pot grower, urged the agriculture officials to look past the hurdles and see pot growers as farmers thirsty for guidance on growing healthy, profitable crops.

"We want your help. We'd rather not rely on the 19-year-old at the grow shop," said Cullen, who is one of Colorado's largest pot growers and is advising the Agriculture Department on its forthcoming pot guidelines.

The agronomists standing in the room of pot nodded, saying they're open to sharing advice — though their knowledge must remain academic.

"I can tell you how to grow it. But I can't use it. I'm drug-tested for the state department of agriculture," joked Max Jones of North Carolina.

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

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This story has been corrected to show that the Colorado Division of Plant Industry official did not take part in the tour.

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