Ogden • Jeff Colbert gets a lot of strange looks — and more than a few incredulous questions — when he talks about his research project.

“Is that even legal?” some people ask him. “The university is letting you do what now?” others want to know.

Sometimes he tries to explain, but mostly he laughs, too.

Colbert came to Weber State University in northern Utah to study botany after nearly two decades of working in law enforcement. Now, he’s specializing in something that less than six months ago was outlawed in the state.

For his senior capstone, Colbert is growing hemp — a plant that’s from the same species as marijuana that, though currently permitted, he could still be apprehended for misusing.

“This is my midlife crisis,” the 41-year-old joked last month as he walked through the greenhouse on campus. “A lot of people go and get sports cars. I’m getting a degree and looking at plants that could potentially be confiscated.”

Industrial hemp, a nonintoxicating form of cannabis, became legal in the United States under a 2018 farm bill, and Utah began issuing permits for its commercial growth only this year. So far, of the more than 15,000 farms in the state, 125 have requested and received permission to plant it.

Colbert wants to research how hemp could expand and become a viable cash crop here. To get the OK from the university, he wrote more than 100 pages on the purpose of his study. He found a secluded spot on campus to grow the plants. And he convinced Weber State administrators that he wouldn’t cross into producing drugs.

“I was totally prepared if the school just said, ‘No,’” Colbert noted. “A lot of people still think I’m growing pot. But I’m not. This is legal. This is research.”

‘Often misunderstood’

Only two groups in the state have the go-ahead to scientifically study hemp. Colbert’s project is one of those; the other is at Utah State University.

“It’s not widespread yet,” said Jack Wilbur with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, which is overseeing the production of hemp.

There’s been much more interest in the state launching its new medical marijuana program. But, Wilbur believes, the possibilities are more open with hemp — and, unlike medical marijuana, there is no limit on the permits available and much less cost.

“There’s a real good opportunity for people here,” he added.

Colbert stood in the university’s botany department with a stalk from a hemp plant and started ripping off the bark in long green strips as proof.

This part of hemp, he said, is used to make ropes and cloth. The seeds can become CBD oil to treat anxiety, sleep deprivation, seizures and other ailments, he added. And pretty much everything left over can be turned into natural sponges to soak oil out of the ocean and pollution out of the air.

“If this plant produces rope and can be a pain reliever, what else?” Colbert said. “There has to be more."

That versatility makes it valuable. In other states where the rollout has been quicker, the number of permits has taken off and sales have already hit $30 to $40 per pound. Some experts are anticipating a billion-dollar market.

The biggest hurdle to replicating that success in conservative Utah, suggests Kat Schramm, an assistant professor in botany who’s helping Colbert, is the association of hemp and marijuana.

“The relationship is like broccoli and kale,” Schramm said. “They are bred to give different products. But that’s often misunderstood.”

Hemp is part of the cannabis species like marijuana, the recreational use of which is prohibited in Utah. But because it has virtually none of the byproduct THC, hemp should have no similar psychoactive effects.

(Growers are still subject to random checks by state agriculture employees just in case. All plants must remain under 0.3% for THC or they could be destroyed and the owner could be disciplined.)

With the different regulations and fears, Schramm added, hemp hasn’t been largely researched. Most studies date to the 1970s before it was banned in the U.S. Colbert’s project will be one of the first since then to really examine the plant and the possibilities.

He first became interested in researching hemp when he was growing up. The father of a friend of his discreetly grew one plant. He used the oil to treat his back pain, and Colbert said it really seemed to work.

Now Colbert hopes some farmers here will consider replacing blocks of their crops with it — which he believes could earn them more profit. “You could take a cornfield and turn it into a hemp field.”

Growing like a weed

Colbert pulled a small silver tin out of the pocket of his lab coat. It once held breath mints. Inside instead were 600 tiny hemp seeds. He said with a chuckle, “It’s not the hot stuff I used to get people for.”

In January, Colbert will retire after 20 years in law enforcement. Because he works with violent suspects, he asked that his agency not be named.

He followed his dad into policing and got his associate degree in criminal justice in 2008. While on the job, Colbert often met people who had smoked marijuana, typically laced with another narcotic. “It messed them up,” he said.

He didn’t like seeing people affected that way. And he really didn’t love the work.

He daydreamed often about the job he had before that — just for a summer — at his neighborhood greenhouse when he was 18 in West Valley City. He couldn’t wait for his police shifts to end so he could work on the garden at his home in Bountiful.

So, in 2015, Colbert went back to school part time to pursue botany. He worked night shifts at his job, took his kids to school when he got off, signed up for morning classes at Weber State and went to bed in the afternoon after that. By 5 p.m., his day would start again.

“It’s worth it. I wanted to be outside,” he said. “I just wanted to be able to grow my own stuff.”

He’ll finish his degree in spring 2020 after his hemp research project is done. Colbert and Schramm will plant the seeds this month in three different soils collected at different levels of Lake Bonneville strata. Up higher, there’s more sand in the sample. Down lower, more clay.

The idea is to give Utah farmers a sense of the type of land that works best to grow hemp — and what fertilizers and nutrients could be added to make it closer to ideal. The hemp plants should be tall and stringy, too, Schramm added. Marijuana, meanwhile, is typically bushy with flowers.

He got the seeds at a cannabis research conference in Colorado. A presenter there gave them to him for free — which is good because Colbert already spent $500 to get his permit to plant them and $800 to put a fence around where they’ll grow on campus.

He will be able to harvest them in 60 days — a remarkably short maturation time for a crop. “They grow like a weed, for lack of a better term,” he joked.

‘A fairly lucrative crop’

Jason Barker helps run his family’s farm in North Ogden, where for several generations they’ve grown alfalfa.

In recent years, they haven’t produced as much and profits have slowly slid. They’ve talked to neighboring farmers and heard about their applications for subsidies or federal bailouts. They didn’t want to get to that point.

So this March, Barker got a permit to plant hemp and set aside 6.5 acres, or two fields, for a pilot run.

“Looking at the numbers for hemp,” Barker said, “it’s a fairly lucrative crop compared to alfalfa.”

They are exactly the kind of people Colbert hopes to help with his research. Many farmers in Utah focus on alfalfa and straw, which are largely exported out of the country. Hemp, he believes, would stay mostly in the United States and be processed here.

Wilbur at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food predicts much the same. “There are companies emerging here that want to process this and extract the CBD oil and make other hemp products,” he said.

The farm industry was particularly hard hit by the Great Recession. Prices plunged and many shut down production. In response, some folks in Kentucky tilled under their tobacco crops and planted their fields with hemp. So far, it’s seemed to work.

Barker’s family saw that and is testing the plant this year for oil production. The family’s business, which he’s named Wasatch Hemp Farm, plans to expand next year if it’s successful.

“A lot of the farmers would be interested in help,” Barker said. “It’s a new, learn-as-we-go industry.”

Kevin Rundle, who started Desert Snow Hemp in Taylorsville in February, added that he’s heard about Colbert’s research and looks forward to reading it.

After 35 years working in the aerospace industry, Rundle decided to try his hand at something with a little slower pace. Because it’s so new, there are few studies to help him get started. “We’re just learning the plant right now,” he added. “We’re waiting and learning.”

Colbert is waiting, too, to find some answers.

His 48 plants are protected by double fencing in his private garden spot at Weber State. Campus police cars often cruise past as he works — just as he used to do elsewhere on his night shifts.