A field of hemp grows in Oregon, where lawmakers are considering a bill to allow law enforcement officers to assist farm regulators with inspecting the crop.

Oregon farm regulators have won approval from a key legislative committee to hire two specialists focused on hemp inspections and enforcement.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture has also gotten authorization to fund an assistant water master who’d investigate claims of water law violations by hemp farmers.

Hemp production has exploded in Oregon in recent years, increasing from about 100 acres in 2015 to more than 63,000 acres in 2019.

To keep pace with the industry’s growth, the ODA has assigned employees from other segments of its natural resources program to work on hemp licensing and other hemp issues.

However, the agency won’t be able to dedicate so many resources to hemp without detracting from other natural resource duties, according to an analysis submitted to lawmakers.

For this reason, ODA has requested that lawmakers add more than $1.2 million to its existing $500,000 budget for the hemp program.

“The department didn’t have an adequate budget for the hemp program we have today,” said Lauren Henderson, the agency’s assistant director.

The agency already has the money to pay for these positions, which it raised through registration fees on hemp producers, but needs Oregon lawmakers to sign off on how the funds are spent.

“We have managed the cash resources to grow as we anticipated the industry growing,” Henderson said.

Two new full-time field positions would be aimed at sampling and testing hemp, providing technical assistance to hemp growers and ensuring they comply with registration requirements at a cost of $330,000. The agency already employs two people in its hemp program, but they mostly spend time in the office, devoted to licensing issues.

Some $700,000 would go toward compensating existing ODA staff for hemp-related operations, and up to $200,000 would be spent on a hemp-focused water master.

Recently, the ODA has received complaints about abuses of water law by hemp growers, including suspicions that farmers are irrigating the crop without water rights or beyond the permitted time period, said Sunny Summers, the agency’s cannabis policy coordinator.

There are also concerns that hemp growers are irrigating with domestic wells that are exempt from having to obtain water rights permits, she said. The issue may be confusing, because medical marijuana growers were allowed to use domestic wells, since they’re not considered commercial producers.

Up to $200,000 would be shifted from ODA to the Oregon Water Resources Department, which doesn’t receive hemp registration fees but would directly employ the water master.

The idea is to see whether water law violations are a serious problem in the hemp industry, Henderson said. “We want to give them some resources to get started.”

On Jan. 13, the ODA’s request to dedicate another $1.2 million to its hemp program budget was unanimously approved by the natural resources subcommittee of the Ways and Means Joint Committee, which makes funding decisions.

The allocation must still be approved by the entire Ways and Means Committee, as well as the Oregon Legislature, but the subcommittee’s approval is considered an important first step for the request.

If fully approved, the expanded hemp budget would fund the ODA’s hemp activities through the end of the current biennium, which concludes at the end of June 2021.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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