The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Nov. 19 not to take up a hemp cultivation ordinance and indicated it instead intends to extend an existing moratorium for another year.
"It seems like prohibition all over again," mused Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone as the board took up the discussion, which spanned nearly two hours and saw more than a dozen residents address the supervisors.
The issue is complex as it deals with two varietals of a single plant — cannabis — that are regulated differently by the county, the state and the federal government.
There's THC cannabis, it's the one Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden recently called a "gateway drug," taking a page directly out of Nancy Reagan's 1980s playbook. It'll get you wicked high, which is largely why it's popular. Legalized for recreational use by California voters beginning in 2018, it is strictly regulated by the state and a local land-use ordinance but remains federally illegal, classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
Then there's hemp, a variety of cannabis that contains virtually no THC — less than 0.3 percent — and until recently was commonly used to harvest fiber to make paper, clothing and other materials or seeds for food and supplements. But now that canabidiol — commonly known as CBD — has become a full-blown wellness craze, linked (sometimes very, very loosely) to treatments of everything from autoimmune disease and seizure disorders to neurological conditions, inflammation, anxiety and cancer, there's suddenly a multi-billion-dollar market that has opened up. In a move almost nobody saw coming, Congress legalized hemp with the passage of its Farm Bill last year, meaning THC cannabis' boring cousin is now federally legal to be grown anywhere and sold freely across state lines.
This makes for interesting times in Humboldt County, where THC cannabis farmers are struggling with high compliance costs and taxes to compete in a super highly regulated state market in which every plant is tracked and traced to make sure it isn't diverted into illicit markets in California or other parts of the country.
The argument in favor of allowing CBD hemp cultivation in Humboldt is that some local farmers feel like they can grow unique strains of female hemp flower that will produce high-quality CBD products, which could then be sold nationally and — they think — compete well against counterparts derived from industrial hemp fields in other parts of the nation. (This boutique v. industrial CBD hemp fight has been likened to schwag v. kind in the THC cannabis market.) And without the rigorous compliance costs, regulation and tax structures that are currently bridling the legal THC cannabis markets in the state, a boutique CBD hemp industry locally could be a way for some farmers to get into the game without massive upfront costs.
The argument against hemp cultivation in Humboldt comes down largely to fear and equity, at this point. On the fear side, THC cannabis farmers argue that cross pollination would put the entire regulated THC cannabis industry in Humboldt in jeopardy. Simply put, cannabis farmers want all unfertilized female plants, because they grow big, potent buds to send to market. As soon as a female plant is fertilized, its energy shifts from making potent trichomes to making seeds and everything goes to hell. Industrial hemp farmers historically haven't cared about male or female plants, as they really just aim to harvest seed and fiber. So large-scale hemp farms were — and still are, in some cases — a pollen free for all. (One public speaker said 8 percent of Southern Oregon's cannabis crop is projected to be seeded because of cross pollination from hemp farms.)
On the other side of things, judging from Nov. 19's public comment period, farmers who have paid a bunch of money and jumped through a ton of hoops to get compliant and licensed in the state's legal market also don't love the idea of a bunch of folks strolling in through the proverbial backdoor to grow the same plant as a principally permitted use without any of the environmental regulations and taxes THC farmers currently face.
The board's decision to hold off on taking up an ordinance and instead move forward with a year's extension of the current cultivation moratorium essentially punts the decision down the road. But it also only extends to unincorporated areas of the county and there are already CBD hemp cultivation sites here, including one in Arcata. Heck, some folks with licensed farms are already growing high-CBD varietals of cannabis that may, in fact, qualify as hemp.
The reality is this isn't a decision that can be put off for long. The board would not be wise to kick the can too far down the road. The cannabis world is changing rapidly and even a county with a reputation like Humboldt's risks being quickly left behind.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. He prefers he/him pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.