Stanislaus County to allow hemp cultivation. Tests will make sure it’s not really pot

Stanislaus County leaders approved a pilot program Tuesday allowing for cultivation of industrial hemp on small farm parcels.

Participating growers will be able to raise the cannabis-like crop on a maximum 12 acres. The ordinance, requiring growers to register with the county agricultural commissioner, was approved on a 3-1 vote and is expected to take effect July 18.

Industrial hemp looks like cannabis, but people don’t get high from smoking it. Hemp growers need to make sure the plants grown for fiber don’t exceed the 0.3 percent level for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Two weeks ago, supervisors ordered staff to quickly develop a pilot project so hemp growers can learn cultivation techniques and the county can study issues such as odors, potential land-use conflicts, testing protocols and the workload for law enforcement.

The county has heard interest from about 60 growers since industrial hemp was declassified as a controlled substance in the 2018 national Farm Bill.

Grown historically for materials to make rope, canvas and other products, hemp is showing promise today for an oil extract used for medicinal purposes and for lotions, ointments and food supplements.

The county could have imposed a moratorium on growing the new farm commodity until federal and state regulations are more firmly established, or it could have continued with a practice of not accepting registrations.

Instead, it will allow small-scale cultivation on 10- to 12-acre properties zoned for agriculture. “Doing nothing is not an option,” Supervisor Vito Chiesa said.

More than 25 other counties imposed a moratorium on hemp production until there’s more clarity on testing and law enforcement responsibilities.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who voted against the ordinance, said a moratorium made more sense to him. “I cannot understand why there is such an effort to rush this through without regulations,” DeMartini said.

The supervisor’s opposition killed a proposed urgency ordinance, requiring a four-fifths vote, that would have permitted registered growers to start planting industrial hemp this month. Supervisor Tom Berryhill was absent Tuesday.

John Duarte, a nursery owner, said the pilot program will create an opportunity for smaller operators to get a start in the industry.

Agricultural research institutes, and county-registered growers and seed breeders, may grow industrial hemp under California law. Some counties are concerned about a lack of approved labs for testing THC levels, a lack of pesticides registered for use on hemp and possible threats to agriculture.

Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire said there’s interest in growing about 2,500 total acres of hemp in Stanislaus County based on the inquiries to his office. If county leaders are satisfied with results of the pilot program, land-use policies could be developed for cultivation on a larger scale.

Testing would reveal if any growers are cultivating marijuana under the guise of industrial hemp.

There’s some concern that widespread cultivation of industrial hemp could create a public perception of tolerance for growing illegal cannabis in the county. A county ordinance limits cannabis to indoor cultivation.

The pilot program, which runs until May 1, 2020, does not restrict the number of industrial hemp growers. Participants have to register with the county agricultural commissioner and the parcels must be in the county’s general agriculture (A-2) zone outside city planning boundaries.

The ag commissioner has authority to establish rules for testing THC levels at accepted laboratories and certifying the THC content in the plants. The Sheriff’s Department could order growers to destroy their crop if THC exceeds 0.3 percent.

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