Marijuana growers worry that Oregon’s emerging hemp industry could take the buzz out of their recreational and medicinal weed.
Some lawmakers hope to clamp down on the state’s embryonic industrial hemp crop amid concerns that through cross-pollination hemp could harm outdoor medical marijuana grows, particularly in Southern Oregon.
Hemp — a cousin of marijuana that has much lower levels of pot’s psychoactive component, THC — can ruin valuable marijuana crops through cross-pollination by lowering marijuana’s THC content, pot advocates say.
Hemp fiber can be used to make cloth, rope and other products. And, like marijuana, hemp, consumed as an oil, has medicinal value, hemp supporters say. But you can’t get high from smoking it. Hemp was first approved for cultivation by Oregon lawmakers in 2009, but a long-standing ban at the federal level blocked legal hemp grows.
That changed with the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which allowed research-based hemp crops. Earlier this year, the state Department of Agriculture started issuing licenses for legal hemp grows for the first time.
It has not gone smoothly.
Department officials initially issued licenses to hemp growers without obtaining GPS location data and maps of where the crop would be planted or information about the size of the grows, in violation of the department’s own administrative rules.
Immediately, existing medical marijuana farmers became concerned that several proposed hemp grow sites in Southern Oregon might cross-pollinate with their crops.
Lauren Henderson, the Department of Agriculture’s assistant director, acknowledged his agency’s error in an interview Wednesday, attributing it to the “pains of setting up a completely new program and doing it expeditiously.”
But he added that Oregon’s 2009 hemp law didn’t direct the department to try to account for “co-existence” between marijuana and hemp crops.
“Those (location) requirements were designed so we would know where the (hemp) crops are” to comply with federal law, Henderson said. “It wasn’t a consideration related to co-existence.”
Now, pro-marijuana lawmakers are stepping in, to the dismay of new hemp growers.
Under new amendments proposed for House Bill 2668 on Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture would revoke all 13 licenses it has issued to hemp growers so far. Those licenses have been issued for areas in Southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley, though none appears to be in Lane County.
The amendments would then allow six “test plots” throughout Oregon, where Oregon State University would study cross-pollination risks. None of those plots could be within 5 miles of a registered medical marijuana grow site.
Backers say some of the existing licensees could qualify to become a test site. The state would reimburse those who aren’t allowed to convert to one, for their prior setup costs as well as the value of their crop if they’ve already planted it.
The amendment would also block approval of any other new hemp grow sites until the end of 2017.
Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who drafted the amendment, said it is intended to correct “the haphazard approach that we’ve taken so far in introducing hemp.”
Lawmakers “made the assumption in 2009 that possible conflicts with medical marijuana would be addressed by the Department of Agriculture,” he said. “We want to set up good areas for growing hemp, without damaging anyone else.”
The House Rules Committee didn’t adopt Buckley’s proposed amendments on Wednesday. Another amendment, which would be more lenient on the hemp industry, has also been proposed.
Critics say Buckley’s amendment would significantly damage the hemp industry just as it’s starting, potentially causing most farmers to miss three more growing seasons.
The amendment “is designed to kill this industry,” said Mark Gatlin, a Grants Pass city councilor at a brief hearing on Wednesday.
After receiving his license earlier this year, Cliff Thomason planted hemp on 43 acres near Williams in Josephine County last month. His main goal is to produce hemp for medical purposes, as a nonpsychoactive alternative to medical marijuana, he said.
Thomason said he can’t understand why lawmakers are proposing such a heavy-handed approach.
“I’ve been waiting eight years (to grow hemp), and now they’re already trying to shut me down,” he said. Lawmakers “are trying to give preference to medical marijuana over hemp on what is notoriously some of the best farmland for cannabis.”
Thomason said he understands “the threat I pose to medical marijuana industry” because of cross-pollination. But he said he believes “farmers and neighbors could work things out together” without a statewide rule.
For example, he said, hemp farmers could be limited to growing only female plants outdoors. That way there would be no male hemp plants outdoors to pollinate the marijuana crops, which are all-female, Thomason said.
“No one wants to be in the agro-terrorism business,” he said.
Geoff Sugerman, a lobbyist who represents marijuana growers, said female-only hemp crops “might provide an avenue” to co-existence between the two crops in the future. But, he said, marijuana growers would first need in-depth study of whether that solution was feasible.
“Right now, we want a timeout (on hemp grows) so we don’t damage our existing and successful medical marijuana crop,” he said.
The conflict over cross-pollination mirrors a long-standing conflict in the Willamette Valley between farmers who want to grow canola and established specialty seed and vegetable farmers. The specialty farmers fear their crops would be pollinated by canola.
Lawmakers stepped into that conflict as well, most recently limiting canola crops to 500 acres in the valley until 2017, while the crop contamination risks are studied.