Marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin hemp is on the path to federal legalization, and some advocates believe the change could transform it from a niche product to a massive industry in Central Oregon and beyond.
“Hemp could well be one of the dominant crops in Central Oregon,” said Matt Cyrus, president of the Deschutes County Farm Bureau.
The federal Hemp Farming Act, co-sponsored by senators Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as well as Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., removes hemp from the list of Schedule-1 illegal drugs and allows businesses to transport it across state lines. After introduction, the bill was rolled into an omnibus federal farm bill.
During an interview Friday afternoon, Merkley described it as an attempt to normalize the cultivation of the crop, which has been illegal to grow and sell in the United States for decades.
“If we’re consuming it and there’s a market for it, why not give our farmers a chance to compete?” Merkley said.
Hemp is a variant of the cannabis plant, but is distinct from psychoactive marijuana because of its low levels of THC, the compound that gets marijuana users high. While marijuana has grabbed most of the headlines in Oregon and beyond, both variants have faced a long path to legalization and general acceptance.
In Oregon, the framework for hemp legalization comes from House Bill 4060, which passed in 2016 with the support of industry advocates.
It allows growers licensed with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to grow cannabis plants with up to 0.3 percent THC, a small fraction of the concentration found in psychoactive marijuana, without requiring the city or county government approval that recreational marijuana receives.
Cyrus, who owns a hemp farm in Deschutes County, said the crop has a variety of uses, and can provide fiber for everything from paper to clothing. But with markets for those products diminished by decades of inactivity, the most active current market is for the compounds the plant produces, including Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD.
CBD lacks the intoxicating effects associated with THC, but advocates believe it has certain curative properties, helping with everything from epilepsy to cold sores.
CBD is currently considered a supplement, and is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to cure any disease, but it shows up in a variety of products in Oregon, from lotions to juice to coffee.
Merkley said federal legalization could eventually open the product up for testing.
“We’re not going to provide a federal obstacle,” he said.
Today, Cyrus said Oregon ranks third in hemp production following exponential growth in recent years, but still ranks well behind industry hotbeds Colorado and Kentucky. Still, Cyrus said federal legalization could open things up for the state’s industry.
Cyrus also noted that Central Oregon is a natural fit for the industry. He said the crop can be prone to mold or mildew, but its high tolerance for drought allows it to thrive in drier conditions.
One big change would be removing barriers to transporting hemp across state lines, which Cyrus classified as “a gray area” under the current system. Ultimately, clarifying the system could make it easier for Oregon growers to work with large-scale buyers in Colorado and Kentucky, according to Yon Olsen, owner of Cascadia Crest LLC, a Deschutes County hemp operation.
While Olsen said he’s never had a problem transporting hemp to other states, he noted that removing barriers — real or perceived — could attract more growers to the industry. Cyrus added that federal legalization may make banks and public and private delivery services less wary of hemp.
Still, Olsen characterized federal legalization as a double-edged sword, in part because of those new growers. New people entering the industry creates more competition, while also creating an environment with a lot of churn in the short term.
“People don’t know what they’re doing; they’re just jumping in like it’s the gold rush,” Olsen said.
Olsen added that FDA testing could actually set the industry back, if it allows CBD to be consolidated in the hands of the pharmaceutical industry.
The U.S. Senate approved the federal farm bill that includes hemp legalization in June, but the U.S. House of Representatives voted to send it to a conference committee earlier this month.
Still, Merkley was hopeful that it would be approved in the next couple of months.
“I think it would be a positive thing to get it done now,” Merkley said.
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