Mateusz Perkowski/Capital Press
There’s no shortage of confusion over Oregon’s cannabis rules.
Establishing a regulatory regime for the crop has been compared to building an airplane while it’s in mid-flight, said Sunny Jones, cannabis policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“When you’re trying to start an industry from the ground up, there are going to be some learning curves and bumps in the road,” she said.
Jones is charged with helping cannabis producers navigate the byzantine regulatory system they must traverse to legally grow the crop.
Consider the complex layers of its legal status.
Varieties of the plant with minuscule levels of THC, a psychoactive substance, can be grown for research purposes as hemp under federal law, but cultivars with higher levels of THC, which are considered marijuana, remain federally prohibited.
Nonetheless, Oregon has legalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, with both uses regulated differently under state law.
Several state agencies are involved in overseeing marijuana’s cultivation and sale, including the Liquor Control Commission, the Health Authority and the Department of Agriculture.
Regulating pesticides used on marijuana is within ODA’s jurisdiction, as is the food safety enforcement of edible marijuana products and the testing of scales used for weighing the crop.
Meanwhile, the state’s licensing system for industrial hemp is also administered by ODA.
If all this wasn’t complicated enough, Oregon lawmakers are also continually revising the state’s cannabis laws as the industry finds its legs.
“We’re only a few years in. It’s going to continue to change,” said Jones, who began working as the agency’s cannabis policy coordinator in 2015, a year after Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana.
Some aspects of the cannabis industry have evolved in unexpected ways.
When Oregon lawmakers legalized industrial hemp, they expected the crop would be primarily cultivated for oilseed and fiber.
Instead, most Oregon hemp growers are focused on cultivating hemp flowers, which produce cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive substance thought to possess healthful qualities.
At this point, Oregon hemp farmers lack nearby processing facilities for fiber and oilseed, Jones said. “We don’t have a lot of infrastructure for other uses.”
The production of cannabidiol extract from hemp is also becoming intermixed with the marijuana industry, as cannabis entrepreneurs are seeking to create novel products by combining the substance with THC extract.
Such developments require Oregon lawmakers and regulators to clarify how these interactions are regulated, Jones said.
Jones often fields questions about pesticides and cannabis, which is a tricky subject because the crop is illegal under federal law.
Because no pesticides are specifically labeled for cannabis, growers can only use products that aren’t subject to federal residue tolerance rules. The pesticides must also be labeled for use on a broad plethora of plants, as opposed to distinct crops.
The federal illegality of cannabis imposes a problem for growers seeking agronomic advice, since Oregon State University’s Extension system is prohibited from advising on the crop.
“Not having extension services is hard,” Jones said. “Who do you look to for the best practices?”
The solution may be found in cannabis farmers working together.
Jones believes it may be wise to form commodity commissions for hemp or marijuana, which would allow growers to pool resources and steer research.
The cannabis community isn’t limited to the “Birkenstock, tie-dye crowd,” and includes engineers and others from diverse backgrounds, she said.
“It’s really cool the wide group of people I get to work with on a regular basis,” Jones said. “Community is a core value for me as a person, and I get to put that value into action in this position.”
Community interactions have played a significant role in Jones’ career since she graduated from OSU in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in bioresource research.
She initially advised people on pesticides at the National Pesticide Information Center, then was hired by ODA to run its pesticide use reporting system.
The system never worked well due to the disparity between needed information and farmers’ privacy interests — the data was too general to be useful while growers chafed at reporting requirements.
When the program was eventually scrapped, Jones remained at ODA as a pesticide investigator before taking the cannabis policy coordinator job.
Though the pesticide use reporting system wasn’t successful, the experience has proven valuable in her new role.
“I’m used to jumping into a position that hasn’t existed before,” Jones said.
Occupation: Cannabis policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture
Education: Bachelor of science in bioresource research, Oregon State University in 2003
Hometown: Salem, Ore.
Family: A partner and two children