The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously decided on Tuesday not to adopt regulations for industrial hemp, a move that likely means the county’s ongoing ban on growing the crop will continue past this year.
The supervisors’ vote puts to end months of discussion around developing regulations for hemp, a variant of cannabis that doesn’t get anyone high. While cultivation is likely to remain banned in Humboldt County, the supervisors indicated an openness to allowing manufacturing, distribution and processing of the crop.
“I get the sense that most of us feel that we need to put the brakes on this,” 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said Tuesday about hemp cultivation.
The supervisors will decide on continuing the moratorium next month, but several made it clear Tuesday that they supported a continued hemp ban as they voted to reject the proposed regulations.
In September, the county’s planning staff unveiled a draft ordinance that would adopt largely similar laws for hemp as the ones that already exist for cannabis. The regulations, if approved, were intended to take effect after the temporary hemp ban expired in December.
But the Planning Commission last month recommended a full prohibition of the crop, and the supervisors on Tuesday echoed concerns that legalizing hemp could spell trouble for the fledgling pot industry.
“I’ve been very supportive of a ban that would last for a year and allow us to work together as a community to figure out, ‘Can we do both (hemp and cannabis)?’” said 5th District Supervisor Steve Madrone.
Hemp, unlike cannabis, is legal at the federal level following the passage of a complex farm bill in late 2018. Cannabis, meanwhile, is still federally restricted while carrying an intensive set of regulations in California, as well as Humboldt County.
Local opponents of hemp have long pointed to the enormous size and scale of hemp production in other regions, worrying that the lack of taxation on the crop could disrupt the county’s burgeoning pot market.
Hemp can be processed to derive CBD, a compound that also is found in cannabis, but the crop contains almost no THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis that gets people high.
But hemp’s ability to cross-pollinate with cannabis, or spread male genetics to feminized cannabis seeds, has prompted opposition to its legalization in Humboldt County. Public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting were adamant that the phenomenon is no myth.
“With all good intentions, everything is pollinated in southern Oregon,” said Patrick Murphy, the co-owner of the large cannabis distributor Emerald Family Farms. Murphy alluded to thousands of cannabis plants that have been destroyed in Oregon due to hemp farms existing in close proximity.
Ross Gordon, a policy staff member at the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, arrived with two joints containing cannabis and hemp, respectively. He said that the pair were impossible to tell apart, going on to concerns about pollen drift.
“You can check for a male plant on a 10,000 square-foot farm; checking for male plants on 100 acres is a lot different,” Gordon said.
He also made the point that hemp poses the same possible environmental impacts as cannabis. A legal hemp industry would bring its own forestland, wildlife and public odor concerns, he said.
At last month’s Planning Commission meeting, the majority of public speakers similarly came out against legal hemp, which commissioners noted as they voted to recommend a full prohibition of the crop.
Planning and Building director John Ford told the Times-Standard last week he was surprised public opinion appeared to have swung so wildly against hemp in the months since county staff began working on a draft ordinance.
But hemp found more sympathizers at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting. Multiple speakers advocated for allowing boutique, artisanal hemp farms in Humboldt County, rather than the massive industrial farms that pot growers fear could come to threaten legal cannabis.
“Honestly, there isn’t a lot of money in this endeavor,” said Bonnie Carroll, a therapist based in McKinleyville. “Many medicinal hemp growers are at it to help their families.”
Joshua Hanna, the CEO of Humboldt Hemp, Inc., insisted that small hemp farms could coexist with cannabis grows. He cited Lawrence Ringo, a famed Southern Humboldt-based innovator in CBD genetics, as reason not to put a halt on local hemp farming.
“It would be a tragic loss to exclude Humboldt County from an entire evolutionary branch of cannabis that began here,” Hanna said.
Others saw an opportunity for a future middle ground. Thomas Mulder, the CEO of Humboldt Redwood Healing, called for laws that could one day “create parity” between hemp and cannabis.
Tuesday’s vote kills the chance of hemp laws with no direction from the supervisors to develop a new set of regulations. The board will get the chance to formally extend the countywide hemp ban at its Dec. 10 meeting.
The ban does not apply to incorporated cities, such as Arcata, that have not enacted their own hemp moratorium.
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.