Especially those who wrap themselves in the American flag should enthusiastically embrace legal industrial hemp, given that the flag sewn by Betsy Ross likely was made of hemp. As president, Donald Trump signed provisions of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 legalizing hemp federally. Earlier presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, grew the crop, which is used in textiles, paper, and many other products.
So Don Coram’s fellow Republicans are praising him for his state legislative efforts to put Colorado’s hemp farmers on equal legal footing, right? Of course not. Instead, Rep. Lauren Boebert, whom Coram is challenging in the GOP primary for the 3rd Congressional District, recently blasted Coram in an ad for sponsoring pro-hemp legislation and then becoming a hemp farmer. So . . . the “problem” is that Coram wants too much freedom and is too much of a capitalist. I say, go “Liberty Don”!
A brief history of hemp
Let’s review some of the broader history. Despite hemp’s early success in the country, tragically, it fell victim to drug war hysteria and to economic protectionism in 1937, when a new tax strongly discouraged its farming, and to an effective ban in 1970.
In 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which legalized (although heavily regulated) both industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana. Although the plants are related, these are two radically different products. Although I think no liberty-loving person can oppose the legalization of psychoactive drugs, there is simply no sane argument for outlawing industrial hemp. Not even the literal Communists of the Soviet Union were stupid enough to ban hemp, yet some Coloradans managed to put themselves to the left of the Communists on this issue.
Industrial hemp also can be used to produce, in addition to textiles and the like, the consumable cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which is distinct from the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) of psychoactive marijuana. WebMD summarizes, “A prescription form of CBD is used for seizure disorder (epilepsy). CBD is also used for anxiety, pain, a muscle disorder called dystonia, Parkinson disease, Crohn disease, and many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.” There’s some indication CBD might be helpful against Covid.
Coram’s history with hemp
Coram has both sponsored hemp-related bills and farmed hemp. And this raises zero moral or legal problems. Let’s review the details.
Coram’s legislative web page lists many of his bills, some of which pertain to hemp. “Frankly I’m the most knowledgeable person in the general assembly on hemp,” Coram told me. In 2013, Coram supported legislation to set up an “industrial hemp committee.” In 2014, his bill provided “oversight of the industrial hemp program.” In 2017, he sponsored a bill to ensure water rights for hemp growers. In 2018, he was involved in several bills to allow “reclaimed domestic wastewater to be used for industrial hemp cultivation,” to clean up hemp regulation, to create a “Colorado industrial hemp research and development authority,” and to address the branding of products containing hemp.
Coram also grew hemp. Complete Colorado carried the story in 2018: “Colorado state Senator Don Coram, R-Montrose, is entering the CBD field. Coram and three partners, David Coker, Gene Chuchuru and John Reams started Paradox Ventures, Inc. in Montrose as a research and development company to produce CBD extracts.” Unfortunately, Coram’s venture failed. He said he couldn’t sell his 2019 crop and currently is “not growing any hemp.”
Boebert wrongly implies that Coram somehow was self-dealing through his legislative efforts. He wasn’t. A 2017 article by Dan Njegomir offers the details, summarizing, “The law seems to be on [Coram’s] side.” At issue was the 2017 bill pertaining to water rights, which passed the Republican Senate on its way to a signature from then-governor John Hickenlooper.
An allegation that Coram was somehow self-dealing “showed up in the [Durango] Herald’s mail box in an unsigned letter,” Njegomir writes. The complaint had no basis. Coram said (in Njegomir’s words) that “the bill does not single out this company or Montrose County.” Njegomir continues: “His position appears to be backed up by a state statute and legislative rules that exempt legislation affecting an entire ‘class,’ in this case industrial hemp growers, from being considered an ethical conflict. SB 117 affects the whole state and was a response to water rights being withheld from a hemp farmer on the Front Range.” (See also Ernest Luning’s excellent follow-up story.)
The upshot is that you’d have to be ignorant, stupid, or high to believe Boebert’s insinuations against Coram. The obvious intent of the ad campaign is to muddy the waters.
Cronyism versus responsible legislation
This episode raises broader issues. When is legislation self-dealing? When does a legislator engage in cronyism? Laws are basically either just or unjust, rights-protecting or rights-violating. Only unjust laws can give rise to cronyism. Let’s consider some examples.
If a hemp farmer tried to get government subsidies for his business or sick government regulators on his competitors for non-rights-violating practices, that would be cronyism. If someone tried to ban hemp to bolster his own competing products (say, synthetic fibers), that too would be cronyism.
Obviously just working on good legislation that might incidentally be self-beneficial is not cronyism. For example, Republicans who work on choice in education are not self-dealing in any morally troublesome way just because they have school-age children. Joseph H. Stuart was not engaged in self-dealing or cronyism by helping to pass an antidiscrimination law in Colorado even though, as a black man, Stuart stood to personally benefit.
A few years ago the legislature legalized the sale of full-strength beer in grocery stores. The cronyism in this case took the form of prohibiting certain sellers from carrying the product. Had a grocer served in the legislature and voted to open up sales, that would have been a strike against cronyism, not an instance of it.
Coram carried legislation about hemp, and he also was a hemp farmer. And good for him. Although he failed at the farming end of it, he helped to clear up legal barriers to producing hemp. I suspect Betsy Ross and George Washington would be proud.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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