The Oregon Department of Agriculture expects to resume issuing licenses to grow industrial hemp in 2016 by the end of February, but some problems continue to dog the new crop.
The state issued 11 hemp licenses in 2015 before cutting off the process in August. Nine of the licensees planted a crop and three harvested a product, said Lindsay Eng, ODA’s program manager. But the crops of two other growers, one in Grants Pass and one in Bend, are embargoed because the plants exceeded the .3 percent THC limit required under state law, Eng said. The crops will have to be destroyed or remediated in some way, she said, perhaps by using the plant stalks without the flowers or seeds.
Industrial hemp is related to marijuana, but doesn’t contain nearly the level of THC, the chemical compound that makes pot users high.
Instead, advocates say industrial hemp fiber and oil can be used to make clothing, food, rope, cosmetics, plastics and other products. They’ve long said hemp could replace cotton or petroleum in some uses.
Ag researchers say some conventional farmers might eventually be interested in growing hemp as a rotational crop, but for now the market appears to involve small-scale farmers who want to process hemp themselves to make lotions or other products.
Eng said details in Oregon’s hemp law may need tweaking by the Legislature when it meets in February. A section requiring 2.5-acre hemp plots causes some growers problems, as does a requirement that the plants be directly seeded instead of started in greenhouse pots. In addition, it’s hard to obtain seed, Eng said. Canada is the most common source.
Oregon State University has asked the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for permission to import hemp seed and conduct basic crop research. Jay Stratton Noller, head of OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science, said he anticipates the DEA will approve the request and test plots could be planted in April. Three to five years of experiments would be necessary for OSU to produce useful data for growers, he said.
Researchers are starting from scratch because hemp germ plasm had to be destroyed in the 1970s when the federal controlled substances act classified hemp the same as pot and other drugs, Noller said.
Noller said hemp was a viable crop in the past and is grown around the world. In the U.S., the first American flag was made of hemp, Noller said.
“In terms of the number of uses, it obviously buoys a lot of people’s optimism,” he said. “Farmers are always looking for an alternative crop: One, for rotation, and two, for the alternative markets.
“The enthusiasm is not hyperbolic,” he said.
The Oregon Legislature legalized hemp cultivation in 2009, but the law wasn’t implemented because the U.S. Department of Justice classified hemp the same as marijuana. The federal classification remains, but the justice department has said it won’t interfere with hemp production in states that have adopted a robust regulatory system. Industrial hemp was included in the November 2014 Oregon ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana use, possession and cultivation, and the state issued the first hemp licenses as a result.