Hemp on hold again

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – A temporary ban on hemp cultivation has been reinstated in Humboldt County after a brief lapse that saw hemp growers flood the agricultural commissioner’s office with applications for state registration. 

But those applications are voided by the reinstated ban and the county will proceed with developing regulations for industrial-scale hemp and medicinal cannabidiol (CBD) hemp production. 

As the Board of Supervisors advanced toward re-approval of the ban at its May 21 meeting, the medicinal variety of hemp was described as Humboldt’s preferred crop. The plan is to work both it and industrial hemp into the county’s existing cannabis ordinance. 

Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Dolf told supervisors that after an originally-approved hemp ban expired due to not having enough supervisors vote to extend it, his office fielded an influx of applicants for a state system that arguably allows hemp cultivation through a registration process. 

He said his office accepted 40 applications when the moratorium expired on May 17. The applications encompass 513 acres of land, although a single one was for 100 acres. Dolf said that all the applications were for medicinal high-CBD hemp cultivation. 

During a public comment period, one of the applicants, Nate Madsen, a member of the Rain and Zepp law firm and an Environmental Protection Information Center board member, clarified that he was speaking apart from his affiliations and as someone who observed a change of atmosphere in the ag commissioner’s office. 

“It was an extremely refreshing experience for everyone there, everyone was smiles and both sides of the desk were working together to accomplish a goal and it was really amazing,” he said. 

Madsen added that the “PTSD” of hemp cultivators was healed by a sense of acceptance as their applications were taken. “And in my opinion, it is an opportunity to build a coalition,” he said. 

But allowing hemp to go unregulated poses enforcement challenges because it can’t be differentiated from psychoactive cannabis unless it’s lab-tested. Scott Bauer of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told supervisors that if an unpermitted grow  is claimed to be hemp, enforcers have no way of confirming it in the field. 

He related that his enforcement team raided an eight-site complex of grows in Trinity County and “one of the worst sites as far as environmental damage goes” was claimed to be made up of CBD cannabis.  

“It was indistinguishable from the other sites that we hit that were growing cannabis for THC,” Bauer said. 

Supervisor Steve Madrone, whose dissent vote at the previous meeting triggered the moratorium’s lapse, said he’d gotten “a lot of calls” from people accusing him of opposing hemp regulation. 

“I just want to be 100 percent clear – in no way, shape or form am I supporting an unregulated hemp market,” he said, adding that “I also am not supportive of over-regulating.” 

Madrone said the county’s cannabis ordinance is indeed over-regulating cannabis but has failed to adequately reign in environmental impacts. At the previous meeting, he had said he would support developing an updated version of the ordinance that focuses on small-scale cannabis farming. 

Industrial hemp that’s grown for seed-based food production and fiber production is grown in high quantities and absorbs large tracts of farmland. It also has cross-pollination potential and cannabis cultivators are wary of it. 

There’s a robust market for medicinal quality hemp and Supervisor Mike Wilson said it needs to be regulated to control the impacts that compelled the county’s commercial cannabis ordinance.  

He said the situation is “pretty darn similar” to the days of Proposition 215, when the definition of medicinal marijuana was debatable and there was a cultivation boom. “And in some ways, you see a green rush – here it is,” Wilson added. 

“I have a fairly weed-friendly constituency but they’re very concerned about environmental issues – and I don’t think that concern is abated because we’re talking about THC or CBD,” he said. 

Asked about fiber production, Dolf said that variety of hemp is “a greater risk and a greater concern” than high-CBD medicinal hemp. 

Supervisor Estelle Fennell referred to public commentary as a basis for how to proceed. “One thing I got from today is that there was nobody coming here saying they want to grow for fiber, as in seed product” she said. “And another thing I heard is that we want to help the small farmers.” 

Fennell suggested that the county may want to “clarify that the CBD will be grown on parcels of a similar nature” to THC cannabis.

“Absolutely,” said Planning Director John Ford. 

Supervisors unanimously approved a new 45-day moratorium on hemp cultivation. The move had failed at the previous meeting because only four supervisors were present and a moratorium needs a four-vote majority. 

Supervisor Virginia Bass, who was absent at the previous meeting, voted to approve the ban and so did Madrone. 

As for the scores of applications for the state system, Dolf said he will be returning them to those who filed them, along with their $900 application fees.


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