Editor's note: This article was updated on 7/31/2020 at 12:15 p.m. to reflect further comments from the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and correct an error. The original article stated the CDA awarded a contract to MPG to establish the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan. The contract was awarded by Colorado State University, not the CDA.
In Colorado, the state department of agriculture has taken a step toward fully realizing the Hemp Center of Excellence (COE) by awarding a contract to a company that will develop the center.
But some members of the state’s hemp industry say there’s a problem with the company chosen for the job: it represents marijuana, not hemp.
Selection of the Marijuana Policy Group (MPG) has caused protest not only from the state’s hemp industry, but also from national groups as well.
“The Colorado hemp industry is flummoxed, from a micro level ... to the macro level, how awarding this contract to a marijuana stakeholder, claimed [a] marijuana policy expert, benefits Colorado or Colorado hemp industries and researchers,” says a letter sent to the department of agriculture signed by nearly 85 different members of the state’s hemp industry. “The industry (via registration fees) is paying for this contractor, yet we were given no say in who was awarded the contract. We have always and will always remain united against marijuana becoming involved in hemp and we will not allow the CDA [Colorado Department of Agriculture] to undermine our goals by awarding such an important contract to the Marijuana Policy Group.”
It was just one of three letters of protest sent to the department over the past month.
Centers of excellence are recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) as hubs for research, extension and education in crop cultivation. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill) “calls for the agency to give priority in funding to applications from centers of excellence in its research and extension competitive grant programs,” according to NIFA’s website.
MPG’s involvement in the state’s hemp industry started before it was selected to head up the Hemp COE. In 2019, Colorado State University awarded a contract to MPG to establish the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan (CHAMP) in an initiative to develop a thriving hemp industry in the state. CHAMP held regular meetings throughout 2019 that MPG was a part of, along with hemp industry experts and members of state, local and tribal agencies.
MPG, also known as MPG Consulting, is “an internationally recognized corporate strategy and policy advisory firm” for the cannabis and hemp industries, according to its website.
The CDA selected MPG, which put in a bid to head up the COE for $92,975, from a pool of five different applicants. “The MPG proposal was determined to be the most advantageous to the state based upon the evaluation factors set forth in the [request for proposal],” says Mary Peck, the director of communications and public outreach for CDA, in an email to Hemp Grower.
Letters of Protest
Members of the state industry, however, believe there’s more behind the selection of MPG.
In their letter, they allege leaders at MPG have ties within the Colorado state government, particularly with the governor’s office. Ean Seeb, the governor’s special advisor on cannabis, has had an extensive professional relationship with Adam Orens, managing director for MPG, the letter states. Both worked at Denver Relief Consulting, and Denver Relief Consulting has partnered with MPG on several projects.
Peck says before the CDA selected MPG, Seeb had filled out a form "indicating that he has no conflict of interest concerning his participation in the selection process and indicated that he could be unbiased in his evaluation of proposals."
Beyond the alleged conflict of interest, industry stakeholders claim MPG’s involvement in CHAMP has offered insight into their knowledge of the hemp industry. Despite MPG’s claim that it works in both the marijuana and hemp industries, the letters assert it has had little experience in the latter.
“The CHAMP workgroups were the first time Marijuana Policy Group had ever engaged with the Colorado hemp industry and they were clearly unfamiliar with terminology, history, law, rules, past legislation, future legislation needed, the hemp supply chain, federal issues, farmers, manufactures, industry leaders and the complete separation of the marijuana and hemp industries,” the letter states. “Marijuana Policy Group was responsible for drafting our state hemp plan submission to the USDA and a final report from the CHAMP workgroups. ... The state plan submitted failed to meet the standard the industry expects and failed to [include] multiple items which were agreed to unanimously by hemp stakeholders.”
The Hemp Industries Association has also weighed in on the issue, as its president Rick Trojan wrote a similar letter of protest to the CDA asking it to reconsider its decision.
“As the foremost organization representing the interest of all sectors of the United States hemp economy, the HIA is dismayed that the Colorado Department of Agriculture would award a Hemp Center of Excellence contract to a group, the MPG Consulting, a consultancy firm for the marijuana industry,” Trojan writes. “While MPG Consulting may be composed of skilled and accomplished professionals their expertise and experience has been narrowly focused on advising businesses on strategies to maximize profits within the marijuana industry.”
Above all, those who wrote letters of protest believe the involvement of a marijuana company in the Hemp COE will muddle the lines they’re trying to keep separate. Marijuana and hemp are two different industries with different challenges, the letters assert, and combining them may hurt the chances of addressing those issues.
“We believe this confusion will limit long-term effectiveness of the Hemp Center for Excellence in serving the distinct needs of the hemp industry and agricultural sector. In fact, we worry that having a marijuana group provide a Center of Excellence proposal to USDA will jeopardize the approval as USDA is very hostile to marijuana,” the HIA writes in its letter.
The CDA confirmed it has received a total of three letters of protest for their selection of MPG. Peck says the department has denied their requests to find another company because it is "not a remedy allowed under the Colorado procurement code."
With denials from the CDA in hand, Morris Beegle, the founder of a variety of hemp ventures, including We Are For Better Alternatives and the NoCo Hemp Expo, says the state hemp industry is considering how to proceed.
Beegle says he, along with the dozens of others who signed the main letter of protest, has about a week to appeal the decision. Beegle says they’re considering options from an appeal or ethics complaint to a lawsuit of some degree.
He adds that those who signed the letter are considering establishing their own hemp center of excellence.
“We are going to explore our options over the next week with many stakeholders who signed this letter and just try to be as communicative as possible with the industry,” Beegle says. “We really feel the CDA has been tone-deaf in the way they’ve gone about awarding this contract to MPG.