Oregon: Scant Hemp Harvest For Medicine Despite Wide Interest
By Steve Elliott
Michael Hughes could legally grow marijuana in his back yard in Bend, Oregon, if he wanted to. But he can't grow hemp there.
Hughes bought a license to grow hemp, but due to a number of factors, it's still more legally difficult to grow hemp than marijuana and other crops in Oregon, reports Taylor W. Anderson at The Bend Bulletin.
The Legislature authorized hemp cultivation in 2009, despite it being considered marijuana and thus a Schedule I controlled substance federally. The law put the Oregon Department of Agriculture in charge of writing rules and licensing growers.
After taking five years(!) to finish the rules, the agency was finally ready this year for what turned out to be a largely unsuccessful growing season in which just nine licensed hemp farmers got crops into the ground. Those who braved the regulatory environment had to deal with months of uncertainty in a state that last November voted to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older.
Timidity by the Department of Agriculture to embrace hemp has combined with federal law to cripple Oregon's hemp market, despite commercial interest in creating an industry that could lead the nation, according to farmers, businesses, lawmakers and the agencies overseeing hemp in Oregon and other states.
State regulators freaked out when farmers revealed plans to grow hemp plants for an extract, cannabidiol (CBD), which many believe can treat cancer, epilepsy and other ailments, but which remains unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration because hemp remains considered equal to its psychoactive first cousin, marijuana.
“What they’re going to do is screw around long enough that they’re going to disadvantage their farmers,” says Hughes, an attorney who raised and studied hemp in the Midwest before he moved to Central Oregon and grew hemp in the state’s first legal hemp harvest in decades.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture made it clear that when it gave out 13 hemp licenses this year (two of which were later returned) it thought farmers would grow for rope and seeds. But that's not the money-maker in America's hemp industry.
Instead, farmers planted their crops in spacious rows, in a style similar to marijuana growing that encourages female plants to grow dense flowers. Hemp, by law, may contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, so the flowers are high in CBD instead.
CBD is sought after for people with cancer, seizures and other ailments; it has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, partly due to the spreading belief that it can cure cancer.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture claims that during its entire five-year rule making process, it never knew about the desire to grow hemp for CBD.
"I don't think anybody knew about CBD production" during the rule making process, claimed Lindsay Eng, the department employee overseeing hemp production. "It wasn't anything that the Legislature probably had thought about."
Floyd Prozanski, who co-wrote the 2009 bill, said he didn't have CBD production in mind when he introduced the bill in the Legislature. He said any product intended for human consumption should undergo the same testing as medical marijuana "for health and safety reasons."
Records show the Department of Agriculture should have known about the desire for hemp-based CBD production, months before it finished writing its hemp rules. Numerous people flat-out told the agency they wanted to produce hemp-based CBD veterinary medicines, edible supplements and other products.
After months telling growers and prospective growers the law was only intended for things like seed and fiber production, the agency was told in September its interpretation of the law was wrong.
“The legislature did not limit what products may be produced from industrial hemp; growing industrial hemp for the production of CBDs is not contrary to the text of the statute,” wrote Renee Moulun, assistant attorney in charge at the Oregon Department of Justice natural resources section, in a Sept. 23 memo.
The Department of Agriculture also incorrectly believed the law required growers to plant thick fields of hemp, growing dense plots for traditional textiles like fiber, rather than spaciously cultivated like marijuana flowers.
The agency went as far as writing a violation in August for Hughes, claiming his farm, with some rows of hemp spaced several feet apart, didn’t meet field density requirements that Moulun in her memo later said don’t exist. Eng said the violation — along with two more dated Aug. 21 intended for two other growers — was never sent, and Hughes said he never received one.
Sen. Ron Wyden said he has no interest in limiting what hemp growers produce.
“If you’re pro-farmer, pro-business, pro-environment, pro-common sense, you give farmers more freedom,” Wyden said. “This is not pot. This does not contain active ingredients. We don’t get high from hemp. So I think we’re going to pick up more support.”
Photo of Michael Hughes: Joe Kline/The Bend Bulletin