Lawmakers say Oregon agency, university resisting hemp
SALEM — There's a quiet battle playing out between Oregon State University, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Democrats in the state's congressional delegation who say the school and agency have fumbled a chance to make Oregon a hemp leader.
Oregon's Democrats have publicly and privately criticized the agency and university for their apparent resistance to hemp. OSU and the Department of Agriculture responded for months with silence.
The lawmakers are trying to figure out why, despite a united and successful effort in Congress to open a pathway for farmers to grow the crop widespread for the first time since World War II, Oregon is failing to take steps to encourage the industry.
"It's insane that we're having this conversation today," said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat who is among Congress' most outspoken cannabis supporters.
Blumenauer was a leading supporter of the 2014 Farm Bill, which included a provision that made it legal for state departments of agriculture or universities to set up hemp research pilot programs ahead of full hemp legalization Congress is working toward.
Since the bill's passage, farmers in other states are growing hemp, a nonpsychoactive cannabis plant, for fiber, edible seeds, topical oils, biofuels, building materials and its flowers' purported medicinal benefits. But a variety of setbacks led to just nine farmers getting plants into the ground this year despite wider interest in making the plant viable — and potentially highly profitable — for Oregon farmers.
The Farm Bill opened the floodgates in Colorado, where the Department of Agriculture has essentially used its authority to license hemp farmers, protecting them from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration interference. The agency's efforts led to thousands of acres harvested this fall.
Other state departments of agriculture are moving to establish programs that will allow researchers and farmers to plant and grow hemp, which is a member of the cannabis family that by law must have no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in hemp's cousin, marijuana.
But that hasn't happened in Oregon, where the Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University never explicitly set up a research pilot program.
State agriculture officials say the 2009 state law that legalized hemp in Oregon before congressional action didn't lay out a way for them to create a hemp pilot program as later allowed by the Farm Bill.
Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba and Lindsay Eng, an agency employee overseeing hemp regulation, declined through an agency spokesman to comment for this story.
Blumenauer, along with Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Kurt Schrader, Peter DeFazio and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, all Democrats, sent a joint letter Aug. 10 to Coba and Daniel Arp, dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, asking for a timeline when the two would set up the framework that would protect hemp researchers and farmers.
Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon's lone Republican congressman, voted for the 2014 Farm Bill and is a co-sponsor along with Oregon's Democrats of a bill in Congress that would effectively legalize hemp nationwide.
The U.S. consumes more hemp products than any other nation, yet because the plant is tied to marijuana, all of those products are imported from overseas where hemp is legal, the Democrats wrote in the Aug. 10 letter.
"To be in compliance with the Farm Bill, farmers must be certified by and registered with ODA, and they must partner with OSU to conduct research," they wrote. "Without ODA's active participation in the pilot program and the cooperation of OSU, Oregon farmers could lose out on the chance to make Oregon a leader in the hemp industry."
Nearly three months later, when farmers say they need to be planning for planting season just months away, Coba and Arp haven't yet formally responded.
A Department of Agriculture spokesman told The Bulletin on Tuesday the agency has spoken with the delegates' staff and will respond with a letter soon. Oregon State officials declined to comment for this article.
Blumenauer followed up with a letter he sent on his own, this time to OSU President Ed Ray, saying there should be no reason for OSU to resist hemp.
"We changed federal law through this 2014 Farm Bill provision to allow for this research and had discussions that should have clarified this issue," Blumenauer wrote in the Oct. 20 letter.
Blumenauer said if Oregon State doesn't make moves to create a hemp research program, another school in the region will.
"It will happen — the question is whether Oregon State University is going to be left behind," Blumenauer said. "It could be Washington State. It can be in California. The work will be done."
While OSU and the Oregon Department of Agriculture largely remained silent in the face of public criticism, Oregon State is moving to put in place a small research program that would allow university scientists to grow and study the viability of hemp across Oregon, Larry Curtis, associate dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU, told The Bulletin last month.
After declining to answer questions from The Bulletin and lawmakers about its aspirations to start a hemp research program, the university announced Thursday it had applied for a permit and later decided it would undergo fundraising efforts and start a research program.
"This thing is going to be really plastic for a few years until things settle down," Curtis said during the Oct. 7 interview.
Until either the Department of Agriculture or Oregon State University obtains a DEA permit, it's nearly impossible for farmers to legally get live, growable seeds. Because hemp is considered marijuana on the Controlled Substances Act, it remains federally illegal to transport live hemp seeds across state lines.
Andrea Schiavi, who owns an Italian company that has begun selling hemp seeds to the U.S., offered in July to sell to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Because neither the agency nor OSU applied for a DEA permit that would ensure the seeds wouldn't be seized at the border, Oregon couldn't place an order. The state didn't respond to Schiavi, he said.
Without that permit and the stock of seeds from overseas that nearly ensure stable, low-THC genetics, the Oregon farmers who are growing commercially and conducting research without an official state program are left to find seeds on their own. Many have used connections with the state's medical marijuana program to clone low-THC plants to fill fields, which must be at least 2.5 acres. The university's plan to start its own research program still leaves open questions of what the state's commercial hemp farming sector will look like. It's not clear whether the Department of Agriculture will continue issuing licenses to private farmers next year. The agency announced in August it would suspend its licensing through 2015 and possibly through the legislative session that ends in March.
In a draft response to the Aug. 10 letter from the congressional delegates, Coba reiterated her agency's position that hemp farmers weren't following the 2009 state law. She said they were instead growing the plant for CBD oil, a substance in female hemp flowers that can be highly profitable in part because some people believe it can treat and cure cancer and other ailments.
The Oregon Department of Justice later wrote in a memo that Coba's interpretation of the state law was incorrect, and that growers could produce whatever legal product they wanted, which includes CBD extracts.
Coba also said in the draft letter that because OSU didn't have money to research hemp, she didn't know how the state could set up a pilot program for 2016 as authorized by the Farm Bill.
"Given this set of challenges, it is unlikely that an industrial hemp research pilot program will be in place in time for the 2016 growing season," Coba wrote.
The university's announcement Thursday also leaves open the question of whether the Department of Agriculture will start its own program or continue waiting for the Legislature to amend the 2009 law.
The continued battle has garnered the attention of more than Oregon's congressional delegation, with state lawmakers and a powerful farming interest group wading into the fray.
"There is, unfortunately, a lack of leadership at ODA," Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, wrote in an email Tuesday. "The department has the authority and the expertise to take the lead on building a solid foundation for hemp farming in Oregon.
"It is incredibly frustrating that Director Coba refuses to do so," Buckley added.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who chairs the state's marijuana committee, said the committee would likely bring hemp into its purview in the short legislative session to add new oversight to hemp products for public safety. Lawmakers may also decide to add other changes to the state's hemp law.
The Oregon Farm Bureau has also become involved in the issue, with Director of State Public Policy Jenny Dresler saying growers are hitting regulatory roadblocks in part because of "the stringent nature" of the hemp permits created by the Department of Agriculture.
"As a crop, we would like to see industrial hemp just like every other crop in Oregon," Dresler said. "The ability for growers to grow what they want and when they need to is a big issue for us."