By Kailey Fisicaro • The Bulletin

Hemp and marijuana:

The same, but different

Hemp and marijuana are both Cannabis sativa, but different varieties serve different purposes. The distinction lies in use, the part of the plant used and its cultivation.

Use: Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) has historically been grown for its strong fiber, which can go into fabrics, textiles, rope, yarns, paper, construction and insulation materials. Conversely, marijuana is used medicinally or recreationally.

Part of the plant: The outer section of the hemp plant is made up of strong fibers called the bast. The inner material, called the hurd, is used for raw materials such as low-quality papers and composites. Oil and a milk substance can be extracted from the seeds for food, body care and cosmetics. By contrast, the upper leaves and flowers of some cannabis varieties produce high levels of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Cultivation: Different varieties of cannabis have different levels of THC. Hemp can be considered an industrial crop because it has 0.3 percent THC, while marijuana has 17 percent.

Source: OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is issuing licenses for growing industrial hemp, and although no one in Central Oregon has applied yet, there has been interest.

A cousin of marijuana, hemp is typically grown for the tough outer fibers used for fabrics, textiles, construction and insulation materials.

Hemp contains significantly lower levels of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high and brings it classification by the federal government as a dangerous drug. That designation includes hemp.

Because of this, growing hemp requires state licensing.

Ron Pence, of the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Inspection Division, said that a number of people have called in from Central Oregon expressing interest in growing, and that, in general, they’ve heard from the public about industrial hemp since 2009, when Senate Bill 676 was originally passed to legalize hemp growing in Oregon.

Most people interested in growing are those who already have businesses that use industrial hemp in their products. Business owners would prefer to source their hemp locally rather than buy it internationally; most hemp now comes from Canada, eastern Europe or Asia, according to Oregon State University.

Four industrial hemp licenses were approved by the ODA as of March 14: 27B Stroke 6 Farm of Corvallis, Cannalive Organics of Yamhill, Mark McKay Farms Inc. of St. Paul and Oregon Agriculture Food and Rural Consortium of Jacksonville.

And there’s probably a reason that none of those farms is near Central Oregon, OSU researchers say. Research so far has been based on speculation, but OSU is finding that Central Oregon may not have the right temperatures for hemp growth, which needs warm days, warm nights and plenty of irrigation, according to Mylen Bohle, researcher for OSU Extension Service in Prineville.

“To grow the seed here may not work,” said Bohle . “It may up by Warm Springs or Madras … certain spots maybe with higher temperatures and longer growing seasons.”

Once temperatures go about 5 below zero, as they can in Central Oregon, hemp might not be able to survive. Elevation, he said, may be a factor as well; hemp would likely tolerate lower elevations better.

According to OSU research so far, southwest Oregon would be the best area to grow hemp because it has higher day and night summer temperatures and lower elevation. Only one of the companies to have a license approved, Oregon Agriculture Food and Rural Consortium of Jacksonville, is located in southwest Oregon.

“My biggest thing, too, is it would take a while to figure it out,” said Bohle, implying that for farmers, time is money. “I don’t know that raising it on irrigated land would pay.”

Bohle also pointed to larger issues that could come up, other than irrigation. “I don’t know that there’s any herbicides labeled to control the weeds, and then there’s always going to be the threat of disease,” said Bohle.

All of these factors come into play with any new crop, which Russ Karow, head of the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science, has researched plenty before. Karow is also a member of the committee that advises the state Agriculture Department on hemp.

Now that some licenses have been approved, the problem is finding legal seed sources, according to Karow. Growers would need specific importation permits for seeds to cross any borders, according to the ODA. Currently, any hemp brought in has to be an oil, milk or processed fiber. Or, it must be proven that incoming seeds are dead, which defeats the purpose of importing them.

The Catch-22 type laws surrounding hemp are confusing even to those heavily involved. Pence says he warns potential growers the process of licensing their crop with the ODA, finding legal seeds and gaining an importation permit for those seeds with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is “lengthy and complex.” So far, none of the licensed growers has found legal seeds.

Additionally, the $500 state license required annually to grow industrial hemp is pricey and at this point cannot be bought on a year-to-year basis, but instead must be for three years.

“We understand that the $1,500 license fee is expensive,” said Pence, who explained that licensing for the crop will by no means be a moneymaker for the state. The program runs on user fees but will not create outside funding.

“We knew ahead of time that this would be a fairly expensive program,” said Pence. “It takes a lot of staff time and a lot of money to start a program.”

Aside from the licensing, growing industrial hemp will be completely new territory for farmers — which is where research comes in.

Hemp research so far at OSU has been either through comparisons to other crops, weather studies or academic literature on hemp. This is because the federal farm bill passed earlier this year allows universities to research hemp in states where it is legal, but strictly regulates the research. OSU would collaborate with licensed growers instead of growing the crop itself.

More hands-on research in the future would most likely focus on potential medicinal qualities of hemp. Researchers would study the genetic mapping of what the specific cannabinoids are that could be active medicinally, according to Karow.

With the differences between state and federal law ODA’s Pence admitted that, in his personal opinion, hemp will have to be formally distinguished from marijuana by the federal government.

“For the industrial hemp to really make a difference,” said Pence, “it needs to be changed under federal law.”

“We know that in Canada and much of Europe people came to the conclusion that it was just a crop. The general consensus is that people know that it should just be a crop,” said Karow. “But if you suddenly have the ability to move hemp around freely, (when federally it’s an illegal drug), it gets complicated.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,