RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST: And now, for today's business bottom line, we go to Colorado, where voters recently legalized recreational us of marijuana. State residents can expect to see small pot shops opening soon. And as Colorado Public Radio's Zachary Barr reports, large-scale commercial farmers also stand to benefit.
ZACHARY BARR, BYLINE: When Colorado voters legalized marijuana, they also legalized hemp. As plants, marijuana and hemp look related, and they are. But while marijuana is bred to get its users high, hemp's all business. It's grown for food and other everyday uses. Hemp contains very little of the chemical THC, the active ingredients in pot.
Yet, tell all of this to farmer Michael Bowman's neighbors.
MICHAEL BOWMAN: When they hear that we're growing hemp, they think we're growing marijuana.
BARR: Bowman is from Wray, a small town on the eastern Colorado plains. He believes hemp needs some rehabilitation and that he's the man to do it. We're driving in Bowman's truck on his 3,000-acre farm. The winter wind now whips across barren wheat and corn fields. Suddenly, we hang a left into a field and hop out of the truck. This is where Bowman will plant 100 acres of hemp this spring.
BOWMAN: We think 100 acres is a good number. It gives us enough to do some variety trials here. It's not a garden plot, and it's enough to have enough product at the end of the day that we can do something, you know, real with it, you know, here in Colorado.
BARR: To hear him and other activists tell it, hemp can be used to make just about anything: rope, paper, plastic, clothing, shoe polish, car parts and even dog chew toys, to name just a few of the possibilities. Bowman says he'll turn his first crop into an edible oil.
BOWMAN: Our goal is really to try to understand, is this a viable crop? You know, getting the research and data gathered this year will be a good step one.
BARR: But isn't it a political experiment as much as an agricultural one?
BOWMAN: It's probably more of a political experiment, you know, at this point.
PAUL ROACH: The growing of cannabis is in violation of the Controlled Substances Act.
BARR: Special Agent Paul Roach is with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He says federal law does not distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
ROACH: So it really doesn't matter whether it looks different or it looks the same. If it's the cannabis plant, it's in the Controlled Substances Act and, therefore, enforceable under federal drug law.
BARR: The Department of Justice says it's reviewing the legalization initiatives approved in Colorado and Washington. The United States is the only industrialized country that bans hemp. Yet it's also the world's largest consumer of hemp products. According to an industry association, total sales of products containing hemp are estimated to be around $450 million.
FRANK PETERS: Hemp's trendy.
BARR: Frank Peters works at Whole Foods in the health and beauty department. In this section, you could throw a hemp seed in any direction and hit a product made with the stuff - soaps and lotions, oils and protein powders. And there's a new product on the shelf called Hemp Hearts.
PETERS: Hemp Hearts are the partially shelled seed, which is going to be the more nutritional part of the plant.
BARR: What do people do with that product?
PETERS: They eat it. They're going to put it in yogurt, over cereal. You can bake with it, things like that.
BARR: How does it taste?
PETERS: It just tastes just a seed matter. It's not really strong one way or another. It's got a - ha, it's like eating a seed.
BARR: Its taste may be rather bland, but its politics are anything but. The Colorado Legislature is giving itself until July of 2014 to decide how to regulate hemp. For NPR News, I'm Zachary Barr.