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Hemp explosion

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The explosive growth in popularity of hemp oil products could lead to literal explosions in the Rogue Valley.

A hemp extract called cannabidiol, or CBD, is popping up in everything from lotions to smoothies across the nation.

CBD doesn’t produce a high like the THC found in marijuana. Although more research is needed, studies show CBD can ease a variety of medical problems, including epileptic seizures and chronic pain.

Hemp jumped into first place among Jackson County crops, passing up grapes and pears, with 8,579 acres planted this year, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Growers hope to sell their hemp or process it themselves to extract the oil.

Processors sometimes use flammable, potentially explosive agents to leach oil from hemp.

“The potential danger lies in how they’re extracting the beneficial product from the plant. And some of those extraction techniques involve hazardous materials such as butane or propane,” said John Patterson, deputy chief and fire marshal for Jackson County Fire District No. 3.

Butane is the fluid found in cigarette lighters, while propane is commonly used for barbecues and in RVs.

Hemp and marijuana oil extraction can lead to explosions.

For years, local fire departments have raced to fires and explosions triggered by illegal operators using flammable butane to extract THC-rich oil from marijuana. The disasters have burned kids and adults, charred homes and buildings and led to criminal prosecutions.

Patterson said the same thing could happen with hemp oil processing if it’s not done correctly.

“Whether it’s hemp or marijuana, it doesn’t really make a huge difference to us,” he said. “What makes a difference to the fire code official and the fire department is are you using flammable gases? Are you using combustible liquids? Are you using CO2, which displaces oxygen and then people can’t breathe?”

Hemp acreage and demand for CBD products have boomed.

But processing facilities — the key middle link in the chain from plant to product — may be inadequate.

As the fall harvest season approaches, Patterson said he fears growers will take shortcuts and set up their own processing facilities without following fire code regulations and safety instructions for equipment.

Marijuana and hemp crops can quickly lose their value if they aren’t dried and processed in time. Mold, for example, can set in — rendering the crop useless, Patterson noted.

Long-time cannabis industry member Mike Welch said concerns about unsafe hemp processing facilities springing up in the Rogue Valley are legitimate.

“The people who would probably be more likely to skimp on the process could be the hemp extractors because hemp oil has become really popular over the last year or two,” he said.

Welch said the demand for CBD products is outstripping the ability of processors to make oil extract.

“So whenever you get that, there’s pressure to fill that gap,” he said.

Welch was a founder in setting up a 13,000-square-foot oil extraction business on Clark Street in Medford. He said it takes times and money to set up a safe, legal processing facility.

“We went through all that,” Welch said. “It was done well enough that they started bringing in fire marshals from around the state to show them, ‘This is what it’s supposed to look like.’”

Processors can use either volatile agents such as butane and propane, or nonvolatile agents such as CO2 and water, he said.

Processors who use volatile agents must have properly vented rooms, special spark-free electrical lights and outlets, and fire-suppression equipment on hand, Welch said.

They should go through the appropriate channels with Jackson County Development Services to make sure their facilities are safe and legal, he said.

“They need to keep in mind that as long and arduous as the process is, you really do have to go through the county planning and building divisions because they have a pretty good handle now on what works and what doesn’t, and what’s actually safe and doable,” Welch said.

Because hemp is no longer classified as a drug, hemp growers and processors face fewer regulations than those in the medical and recreational marijuana industries.

However, everyone must still abide by local land-use regulations, building codes and the fire code, Patterson said.

People in the marijuana industry sometimes mistakenly think because they have Oregon Health Authority or Oregon Liquor Control Commission licenses, that gives them blanket approval for all other laws, Patterson said.

He said fire districts and Jackson County Development Services are there to help hemp and marijuana growers and processors understand and comply with regulations.

Fire District 3 doesn’t go out proactively looking for illegal marijuana and hemp processors.

“If we did that, we would overwhelm the system in less than a month,” Patterson said.

Fire officials will respond to operations that are brought to their attention and refer them to county planning and code enforcement employees, Patterson said.

Processors in violation of the fire code who refuse to comply face fines of $250 per day, he said.

Fire officials also have the authority to turn off utilities such as electricity and water to hazardous operations, Patterson said.

“It’s a last-ditch thing that we hate to do,” he said.

Patterson said operators who resist complying often have other problems going on, such as financial difficulties.

While the marijuana and hemp boom has been called the modern day equivalent of the gold rush, Welch said it’s easy for people to get in over their heads.

He said people can buy plant oil extraction equipment for about $50,000. But costs surge once other needs are factored in, like materials and a building for operations.

“All these projects end up costing a lot more money than people think by the time you put the safety protocols in to actually stay legitimate,” he said. “It’s like any other business. Make sure that you know what you’re getting into before you start dumping money in — because pretty quick a $100,000 project can turn into a $1 million project.”

Welch said modern plant oil extraction processes have been around for decades and are used on a variety of plants, including lavender.

New operators should reach out for help from fire departments, Jackson County planning staff and those in the cannabis industry, he advised.

“There’s a pretty good knowledge base. But it’s like anything else industrial. If you’re not being precise, you’re not keeping things clean, you’re not following the safety protocols, then you’re going to have issues,” Welch said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter@VickieAldous.

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Processed hemp oil, valued at $12,000 per ounce, fills a container at a Kentucky company. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)