SALEM — After coming under fire from lawmakers and farmers for the way it administered a hemp program six years after the state legalized the plant, the Oregon Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it wouldn’t issue any new licenses under the program until at least March.
The move means state agencies and lawmakers will have more time to regulate hemp to ensure the program coexists with the state’s matured medical and blossoming recreational marijuana markets after the Legislature failed in an attempt to do so last session.
“It’s just a pause on new licenses for this growing season. We fully intend to issue licenses after next session,” said Lindsay Eng, who manages the state’s hemp program.
The agency also sent letters to Oregon’s 11 hemp license holders Tuesday telling them they could no longer add new farms for hemp growing to their existing licenses. That prevents license holders from adding new farms through the end of this year, and is mainly an issue for anyone seeking to grow indoors, a practice Eng says she isn’t sure is allowed by state law.
The changes mark a continued rocky start to the implementation of an industrial hemp industry in Oregon, even as other states have navigated the murky federal guidelines to successfully launch the industry elsewhere.
Eng said the issues have been brought out by a lack of clarity in the 2009 state statute that legalized hemp and because marijuana and hemp industries have rapidly changed in recent years.
For instance, Eng said it’s not clear whether the law dictates farmers must grow a minimum 2.5 acres of hemp, or if they can grow any amount of hemp on a minimum 2.5-acre plot.
“Is the 2.5-acre minimum somewhere we want to be? Can we have greenhouse production? Can we have clones or does it need to be seeded?” Eng said.
“We’re already working on those, but there’s just not a lot in the statute that gives direction or authority to regulate the program the way I think our licensees would like to grow or produce.”
One of the state’s nine hemp growers (two license holders didn’t plant this year) on Tuesday again accused the state of picking marijuana over its nonpsychoactive relative.
“Nine farmers is what we’re talking about with less than 100 acres collectively between (them),” said Cliff Thomason, a Southern Oregon hemp farmer. “We’re talking about a very manageable amount of people. So why would you put a halt to that? Why would you suspend it? We’re talking about nine farms.”
Thomason said the pause is a win for Southern Oregon medical marijuana growers, who asked the Legislature last session to instill buffer zones and other regulations to ensure hemp and marijuana plants don’t cross-pollinate with potentially ruinous effects for both plants. The House passed the bill, but the Senate voted 19-11 against it.
Three-year hemp license holders can continue growing if they have plants in the ground and will keep their licenses. No one will be granted a new license until after the short legislative session adjourns in March under the agency change.
Eng said the move has a limited effect because new growers wouldn’t likely be planting until next spring. She said the agency expects to issue licenses ahead of the next growing season.
Another hemp grower, Michael Hughes, an attorney from Bend, said he welcomes any action from the Department of Agriculture to get the hemp-growing industry off the ground.
The Bulletin first reported in June several of the state’s hemp licensees are hoping to enter the highly profitable market for CBD oil, a nonpsychoactive compound in hemp and marijuana that patients use to treat debilitating illnesses.
“It shouldn’t be harder to grow hemp than it is to grow some psychoactive cannabis for a 22-year-old to buy and get high,” Hughes said, adding he supports the state’s marijuana industry and wants the two industries to coexist. “Why are we making it any harder to grow hemp than it is any other kind of cannabis?”
While the plant remains illegal federally because of its relation to marijuana, Congress made a landmark shift in the 2014 Farm Bill toward allowing farmers to grow hemp in states that legalized it.
The Farm Bill said hemp programs must be research-based and administered by state departments of agriculture and universities. That process wasn’t explicitly outlined in Oregon’s statute or rules developed by the Department of Agriculture.
The federal uncertainty hasn’t stopped Colorado from implementing a program that went from about 200 acres harvested last year to an estimated 2,000 acres this year, according to that state’s hemp program manager, Duane Sinning.
Despite not directly following guidelines in the Farm Bill, the Colorado Department of Agriculture hasn’t had trouble with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“The DEA made a surprise visit to us all day today,” Sinning said Tuesday. “It was just a program review.”
Like Colorado, Oregon voters legalized marijuana for adults 21 and older. But unlike Colorado, which has hundreds of registrants growing commercially both indoors and outdoors, Oregon’s farmers still face an uncertain future as the state will work in the coming months to update its policy and administrative rules regarding hemp.
“The crazy thing is it’s not like we’re trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. We’re trying to grow a nonpsychoactive plant,” Hughes said. “I think we can figure out a way to have all these industries work together.”
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this story misspelled Lindsay Eng’s name.
The Bulletin regrets the error.