SALEM — New rules are coming for Oregon hemp producers as the state brings its hemp program into compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture filed draft revisions for the program on Aug. 30. A public comment period is now underway, with a deadline of Oct. 22.
Once adopted, the agency will submit the plan to the USDA for final approval. The changes would take effect for the 2022 growing season, said Sunny Summers, ODA cannabis policy coordinator.
“It’s really important to follow the requirements,” Summers said. “There are a lot of people looking at this industry, and you can’t afford to be naive to the requirements any longer.”
Perhaps the biggest change, Summers said, is the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s new authority to conduct background checks on growers applying for a hemp license.
Under the USDA hemp rule, anyone convicted of a felony cannot participate in growing or processing hemp for 10 years. But Oregon previously was unable to conduct background checks into applicants’ criminal records.
House Bill 3000 — a broad cannabis bill signed by Gov. Kate Brown in July to crack down on illegal marijuana operations — changed that, granting the state agriculture department the ability to conduct background checks in partnership with the Oregon State Police.
“The background check is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, change that growers are going to need to anticipate,” Summers said.
HB 3000 also gives the state agriculture department stronger authority to deny or revoke hemp licenses, Summers said. For example, if applicants have already planted hemp before their license applications are approved, the agency can require the crop be destroyed.
“Just because you submitted an application to ODA does not mean you are legal to grow,” Summers said. “We’re trying to get that message out, that you have to have fully received your license.”
The revised hemp plan sets a cutoff date of May 31 for grower applications. Anyone who submits an incomplete application will have 15 days to provide missing records, or have it rejected, Summers said.
The USDA requires all hemp be tested no more than 30 days before harvest to ensure THC levels do not exceed the legal limit of 0.3%. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main component in marijuana that gets users high.
Summers said growers may be subject to random testing as well throughout the growing season. Part of HB 3000 approved the state agriculture department’s request to hire eight new employees in the hemp program to keep up with the increase in production statewide.
When ODA established its pilot program for hemp in 2015, it started with 13 growers. After hemp was legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill, production skyrocketed to 1,940 registered growers and 60,000 acres in 2019.
As of Sept. 6, those numbers had come back down to 752 growers and 7,175 acres, Summers said.
Kim Stuck, a Portland consultant who works with cannabis farms, said she is advising her clients to be ready for more stringent crop testing and record-keeping under the new hemp rules.
”Many of these requirements are normal requirements in most other industries,” Stuck said. “Hemp, it kind of got going before regulators could get their feet under them.”
Stuck was the city of Denver’s first marijuana specialist before she founded her firm, Allay Consulting, in 2017. In her role as a regulator, she was responsible for investigating cultivation, manufacturing and retail businesses.
Regarding Oregon’s revised plan, Stuck said growers must ensure they have the proper documentation on hand to present to regulators, including planting records, maps, transportation and crop disposal logs.
Without this type of oversight, Stuck said legitimate hemp businesses may be threatened by illegal marijuana grows operating under the guise of hemp. Such operations have been accused of stealing water from their neighbors.
”Because of the legality of things, a lot of our industry is put in danger without people really realizing it,” Stuck said. “This gives regulators more teeth to enforce the laws.”