Trinity County is moving to protect one cannabis industry by shutting out another, at least for now.
A temporary moratorium on industrial hemp cultivation in the county may become a years-long ban, at the urging of Trinity County cannabis farmers and the county’s agricultural commissioner who argue it could devastate the existing cannabis industry through inadvertent cross-pollination.
On Tuesday the board voted 4-0, with board Chairman Jeremy Brown recused, to implement the industrial hemp ban. The ordinance is to come back before the board April 20 for second reading.
Trinity County supervisors have discussed the issue multiple times, minus Brown, who recuses himself because he has a commercial cannabis license.
Ironically, hemp is the same plant as that they seek to protect. However, they’ve been cultivated for different purposes. Hemp has only a miniscule content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. By state definition, it contains no more than three-tenths of one percent THC.
Hemp has traditionally been grown for seed and fiber, but is now being grown for its CBD content (cannabidiol) for use in products intended for human consumption.
Trinity hemp hold
A law to authorize commercial production of industrial hemp in California went into effect in January 2017. On the federal level, hemp was removed from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of controlled substances by the 2018 Farm Bill.
On April 30, 2019, the state Department of Food and Agriculture opened registration for its industrial hemp cultivation program. The department’s website currently shows approximately 450 businesses registered to grow industrial hemp in the state. None are in Trinity County.
Trinity County Agricultural Commissioner Joseph Moreo and local cannabis growers have pushed to keep it that way. So far they’ve been successful. In June 2019, the supervisors adopted a 45-day urgency ordinance imposing a temporary moratorium on industrial hemp. There have been two longer extensions since then, with the current urgency ordinance set to expire May 19.
Supervisors discussed a permanent ban by ordinance during both their regular meetings in March, providing Moreo guidance on what to consider in drafting it. The issue was on the agenda again Tuesday for introduction of the proposed ordinance, which would ban industrial hemp and set up fines for violations consistent with current cannabis regulations. If adopted, the ordinance will sunset in five years.
If industrial hemp were to take root in Trinity County, the fear is that hemp pollen carried by wind, vehicle or people will cause cross-pollination of neighbors’ cannabis crops. Not just close neighbors — the wind-carried pollen can go miles, Moreo said at the March 2 Board of Supervisors meeting.
He added his counterparts in counties that allowed industrial hemp regret it. Industrial hemp is considered an agricultural commodity, and it’s not regulated like commercial cannabis is. No Environmental Impact Statement is required, Moreo said. All that would be needed is an annual $900 registration fee from his office.
That revenue wouldn’t come close to the cost to the department, which would be responsible for activities such as testing THC levels, he said.
Without testing, the plants can’t be distinguished, so compounding the work could be abuse by growers claiming to grow hemp in order to benefit from less regulation and fees, when really they’re growing “something else,” he said.
To hear Moreo talk, the ban comes off as a favor to potential industrial hemp growers.
“The moratorium has worked rather well for the last two years,” he said. “We haven’t had any complaints, and we probably saved somebody some money trying to grow hemp for profit.”
Moreo said so far there has been little interest in industrial hemp growing in Trinity County, although he noted there was a recent ad in the paper by a person seeking to lease ground to grow hemp, and he informed a person who inquired about growing hemp that there was a ban in the works.
In further discussion at the March 2 board meeting, Sup. Liam Gogan asked, “Is this not a good area to grow hemp?” and Moreo responded that the experience in Oregon was that many people growing hemp “lost their shirts.”
Flat, available land is in short supply in Trinity County, he said, and “our distance is an additional cost for someone trying to grow this for profit.”
There’s now competition for hemp growers from other states, Canada and Mexico, he said.
Sup. Keith Groves noted that normally it’s not the role of county supervisors to decide if someone wants to lose money in agriculture.
However, Groves said, “This is not a consistent or compatible crop to our other cannabis industry.”
He asked what distance would be needed between crops to prevent cross-pollination, and Moreo noted that there isn’t much non-federal land in the county on which to grow crops and “precious little flat ground” with the largest area being Hayfork Valley.
There are examples where the pollen has traveled miles he said, but “trying to predict where the drift would be becomes complicated.”
He added that vehicles and people can also be vectors.
Growers see threat
Many cannabis farmers and advocates in Trinity County spoke in favor of the hemp ban.
Adrien Keys of Hayfork pointed out that the ordinance could be changed later if circumstances warrant and expressed concern not only with pollen drift but also spread of pesticides and disease.
“We need to get our taxpaying, licensed cannabis businesses up and running, and that’s I believe where agriculture and planning staff should be putting their attention and effort,” Keys said.
A cannabis farmer from Zenia questioned why anyone would want to get involved with hemp now, saying that three years ago it was profitable, but the price has collapsed.
“I think people’s reasoning for wanting to do this is to weaponize it against us,” he said.
And John Brower of Junction City said the “Oregon experiment” with hemp has “gutted” the value of the emerging cannabis industry there. “They’ve lost lots and lots of genetics, forever.”
He described the prospect of industrial hemp in Trinity County as “a threat to the livelihood of thousands of Trinity County families.”
Among the cannabis advocates, Thomas Ballanco of Douglas City stood apart, saying he’s worked many years for hemp legalization. Ballanco said he believes the issue of pollen drift could be addressed.
“I certainly cannot support a ban on industrial hemp,” he said. “That said, I don’t think Trinity County is a good location to grow industrial hemp.”
Responding to more questions from supervisors, Moreo said hemp has similar issues to other cannabis regarding water usage and odor, and pressed for the ban to continue.
Given the limited availability of suitable land, he said Hayfork Valley where cannabis is already located would see a lot of the hemp growing as well.
“If you had hemp production in the middle of Hayfork Valley, I would predict a range war,” Moreo said. (In a subsequent meeting he said “range war” isn’t the term to use, but the point is to avoid conflict).
Asked by Sup. Groves what would qualify as industrial vs. non-industrial hemp, Moreo said the law is you can have six plants, and he wouldn’t get involved unless it were over that amount.
Noting that the price per pound for hemp is drastically lower than cannabis, Sup. Gogan asked if that meant industrial hemp growers would likely have larger operations, and Moreo responded, “Yes, you would grow it in much larger quantities, much larger acreages.”
That takes more water, Gogan noted, saying, “It just doesn’t seem like it would be productive here.”
Sup. Jill Cox said she got a lot of response to a poll of her district over the hemp ban, some who felt it’s wrong to put cannabis above other crops and wanted to know if both can be accommodated.
She suggested if there is a ban it sunset in three years to be on the same timeline as the county’s General Plan update.
Groves said he also got some emails from people not understanding why a legal crop would be banned, but he feels it’s a safety concern.
“With all due respect to those people,” he said, “from my standpoint at this time the only thing we can do is move forward.”
“When Joe says ‘range war’ he's talking an 1880s range war,” Groves said. “You will see some really bad things happening if these two things spot.”
Sup. Dan Frasier said his biggest issue would be the same as it is for cannabis, the smell, and said he would support the ban, “more to protect our sensitive receptors than to protect our legal cannabis industry.”
He also cited a “major drain” on planning staff if they had to craft an ordinance to accommodate both hemp and cannabis.
The county supervisors discussed the industrial hemp ban again during their March 16 meeting. Moreo said he continued to hear support of the ban from cannabis growers but received no input on the industrial hemp side of the issue.
Without the ban, he said, “we will be placed in the position of being the middle man between these two groups, which is a place we don’t particularly want to be.”