By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County farms may one day be planted with rows of cannabis, but the kind that helps make rope and not dope.
Industrial hemp is quickly becoming a high-dollar crop across the nation for its use as a textile and natural oil. Hemp has traditionally been used for fabrics, such as rope and carpet, but is increasingly being used for its oil extract found in makeup and skin care products as well as food supplements.
The 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp as a federally-approved crop for its almost non-existent levels of the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. On March 26, outgoing Tulare County Ag Commissioner Marilyn Wright told the Board of Supervisors the crop could easily crack the top 10 list of the county’s most valuable crops within a year, if it were regulated.
Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture nor the California Department of Agriculture has issued regulations on the crop, making it a gamble for counties to move forward. Wright recommended the supervisors approve a 45-day moratorium on growing hemp because a crop without approved regulations could use chemicals or practices that endanger other crops.
“This moratorium is about the billions in other crops that we grow here,” Wright said.
Wright said only a few counties, such as San Luis Obispo and Imperial, have approved the crop while 15 counties have issued temporary moratoriums while “many more” are in the process or issuing moratoriums.
The county’s Ag Policy Advisory Committee recommended a 22-month and two-week extension of the moratorium after the initial 45 days because they did not have enough information from federal and state regulators to have an in-depth discussion on the issue. The supervisors could also elect a 10 month and two week extension if it looks like regulations from the state could be handed down sooner. The supervisors unanimously approved the temporary moratorium.
Wright said there is significant interest in growing industrial hemp in Tulare County. Wright said her office reached out to 2,800 county growers and farm managers to gauge their interest in the crop. Of the 53 responses, 37 said they were interested in more information, 14 were opposed to farming next to the crop due to water concerns, and two were indifferent.
The only thing separating the two forms of cannabis is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical which causes the high associated with marijuana. Hemp has almost no THC. Newly appointed Ag Commissioner Tom Tucker said there is not currently an effective field test to determine the difference. Hemp growers do have handheld devices that measure THC levels to know when to harvest the crop to meet the U.S. government standard of 0.3% THC or less, but the devices are not sophisticated enough to accurately measure if the crop is hemp or a low-grade version of pot. The AP reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration put out a request for private companies that might have more sensitive technologies.
“We need to work with law enforcement to come to terms with how to regulate this crop,” said newly appointed ag commissioner Tom Tucker.
The only official test to determine accurate THC levels must be done in a lab. Tucker said testing a sample in a laboratory could take two weeks or up to two months depending on the amount of samples being sent to a lab. This would create lots of headaches for shipping a crop across state lines to a processing facility.
Just last month, the Associated Press reported that truckers hauling industrial hemp have been stopped and even arrested at state boarders because police can’t tell the legal cannabis crop from the federally banned marijuana. Hemp and its more controversial counterpart look and smell exactly alike. Drug sniffing dogs identify them as the same substance.
As of March 29, the AP reported at least three truckers and two security guards transporting state-certified hemp have been arrested and charged with felony drug trafficking. One of them is a military veteran. In January, Andrew Ross, a Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was riding a in a van behind a semi-truck of hemp from Kentucky when they ran a red light and were pulled over in Oklahoma. Ross, who was providing security for the shipment, jumped out and provided police in Pawhuska, Okla., with the state-issued license of the grower, the license for the Colorado lab where the crop was being shipped, and chemical analysis paperwork that the crop had met federal guidelines.
The entire crop was confiscated and Ross was facing 18 years to life in prison if convicted. The charges were eventually dropped but the crop is still being held by law enforcement. Ross posted bail and continues to run his hemp transport business in Denver but told AP that customers in Nevada, West Virginia, and Wyoming say they are afraid to transport hemp out of state.
That doesn’t seem to be scaring off people interested in growing the crop in Tulare County. Tucker said his office gets a few calls each day asking for additional information, such as when will the county begin registration of the crop. About half of the calls are coming from growers within the county and the other half are coming from growers, attorneys, and investors outside of the county.
“Currently there is a pretty hefty price tag,” Tucker said. “It would definitely have an impact on our crop report and gross value.”