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OLCC to crack down on Southern Oregon hemp grows following HB 3000 passage

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneA legal hemp grow is harvested. House Bill 3000 adds new regulations and restrictions that target the illegal production of cannabis and adds new regulations for “cannabis intoxicants” that were previously caught in a regulatory gray area in Oregon following the passage of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill.
New cannabis law sparks new enforcement of hemp farms

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission says its investigators will take to the fields this week, starting with Southern Oregon, to begin testing following the passage of a sweeping round of new hemp and marijuana regulations.

Continuing through September, OLCC inspectors will work with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to inspect every registered hemp grow site in Oregon, according to OLCC Executive Director Steve Marks.

Marks said that testing each of the more than 700 hemp grows registered in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties will be “a doable big, big task.”

OLCC will draw investigators from the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program and ODA to deploy its seven rapid testing machines out into the field over the next eight weeks.

“Everyone’s hitting it hard, I think, with 100% of their back into it right now,” Marks said.

Industrial hemp regulations limit the crop to 0.3% THC, but Marks said that OLCC investigators are not looking for “bad seed mistakes.” Instead, they’re looking for grows that use registered farms as cover to illegally grow marijuana sold across state lines with THC levels of 5% and above.

“We’re not looking for the fine line — is it just over hemp? — we’re looking for more commercial-grade marijuana being grown out there,” Marks said.

The teams of up to a dozen investigators will conduct field tests using handheld equipment that is “very tried and true.” The field tests take 8-1/2 minutes to analyze, and the results hold up in court, he said.

Marks said the effort follows the passage Monday of Oregon House Bill 3000, which adds new regulations and restrictions that target the illegal production of cannabis and adds new regulations for “cannabis intoxicants” that were previously caught in a regulatory gray area in Oregon following the passage of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill made industrial hemp legal across the country, but until HB 3000’s passage, minors could buy products with intoxicating Delta-8-THC derived from processed industrial hemp extracts at the grocery store that in some cases were stronger than the edibles for sale at licensed marijuana dispensaries in Oregon.

In addition to restricting products with Delta-8-THC, the state will set limits and serving size guidance for products containing the hemp-derived intoxicant, and prohibit the sale of CBD products in Oregon that haven’t been tested for the intoxicant.

“We’re going to put out guidance this week to retailers,” Marks said. “The tests are available, so legitimate CBD producers can get those tests and keep their products on the market out there.”

The bill was signed into law Monday by Gov. Kate Brown after being sponsored in the state Legislature by a bipartisan coalition of state representatives largely from Southern Oregon that included representatives Lily Morgan and Duane Stark of Grants Pass, Pam Marsh of Ashland and Kim Wallan of Medford.

Marks said the law’s passage is in response to a surge in nationwide and international investment in hemp grows over the past nine months that’s unlike anything he’s seen before.

Marks flew over Jackson and Josephine counties recently and said he was stunned at the number of grows that he described as a long way from the years when cartels would operate hidden grows on National Forest land.

“We’ve got a long, storied history of illegal cannabis growing down here but, oh my God,” Marks said. “This is not what Oregon’s ever experienced.”

He said the potential of illegal grows goes beyond just cannabis, but is a “lifestyle, quality-of-life issue in the region.”

Marks said some of licensed growers have said they feel endangered by armed individuals at secretive grows, nefarious growers stealing irrigation water without consequence during a drought, and building hoop houses without permits.

At one point during the four months of legislative work behind the passage of HB 3000 this year, Marks said he testified that the closest thing to what Southern Oregon is seeing was when the Rajneesh commune moved into Wasco County in the 1980s.

“It’s a little bit like the Rajneeshees taking over the town of Antelope,” Marks said, clarifying that the comparison stops well short of the 1984 salmonella bioterror attack perpetrated by the commune. “It’s this outside influence changing everything your quality of life is, and we have no control over it.”

Marks said the lack of law enforcement in the region, the lack of a structured ODA hemp program, and Southern Oregon's outstanding growing climate have made the region “ground zero for international investments in industrial hemp.”

“We’re just ground zero — I believe internationally — but certainly nationally,” Marks said.

The first step in the new laws is to clear up confusion between licensed recreational marijuana regulated by the OLCC, the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program regulated by the Oregon Health Authority, and industrial hemp regulated in the state by ODA — by making the growth of any type of cannabis plant (hemp or marijuana) not in a state program or a home grow a Class A misdemeanor.

“It was still legal to grow hemp even if you weren’t a registrant, so law enforcement had difficulty getting probable cause,” Marks said, describing the new law as a “big, big change.”

The OLCC inspections are being funded through recreational marijuana sales at state licensed dispensaries.

For information about reporting OLCC violations, call the anonymous complaint line at 503-872-5218, email marijuana@oregon.gov or see oregon.gov/olcc/pages/make-a-complaint.aspx

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.