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Oregon bill would curb new hemp licenses

[Mail Tribune/file photo Oregon counties could request a halt on new hemp licenses under a bill that has cleared the Oregon Senate and now goes to the state House of Representatives.
Many people growing marijuana under guise of growing hemp

The Oregon Senate passed a bill Thursday that allows a temporary halt on new hemp licenses in counties that request a halt.

Senate Bill 1564 authorizes a county board of commissioners that has declared a state of emergency related to cannabis to notify the Oregon Department of Agriculture of the declaration and request that ODA impose a moratorium on new hemp grower licenses in the county.

The process would be in effect for the 2022 and 2023 growing seasons.

State senators passed the bill 23-1. The bill now goes to the Oregon House of Representatives for consideration.

In 2021, Jackson County commissioners declared a state of emergency due to threats to public health and safety from illegal marijuana production.

Hemp looks like marijuana, but doesn’t contain high levels of THC, which gets users high.

“Overproduction of hemp can cause critical difficulties for law enforcement in rural areas,” said Senator Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. “At face value, hemp is nearly indistinguishable from THC cannabis crops. Law enforcement asked us to temporarily pause the spread of hemp acreage to improve their ability to deal with bad actors. Because conditions vary across the state, this bill gives local government the key role of making the call.”

When state regulators checked hemp grow sites in Jackson and Josephine counties in 2021, they found slightly more than half were growing marijuana with THC levels too high to count as hemp.

The findings confirmed suspicions that people were growing marijuana under the guise of growing hemp. Growing, processing and selling hemp comes with far fewer regulations than growing, processing and selling marijuana.

“A temporary timeout gives us the chance to review and confirm or amend regulations around hemp production,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland. “We must make sure that we are supporting legal hemp growers without emboldening the illegal industry.”

Oregon voters decided to legalize marijuana in the state in 2014, although it remains illegal on the federal level. Congress legalized hemp nationwide in 2018.

Oregon doesn’t have enough staffing in its regulatory agencies to adequately monitor licensed marijuana or hemp operations, or stop illegal activity.

An investigation by the Mail Tribune found law enforcement raids intercepted illegal marijuana with an estimated black market value of $2.78 billion in 2021 in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Douglas counties.

That figure was likely an undercount because the Mail Tribune could not obtain complete, consistent records for all four counties. The state does not require systematic tracking and reporting of raid results, although that would help Oregon officials and the public understand the scale of the problem across the state’s 36 counties.

Officials believe most marijuana grown illegally in Oregon is transported and sold in states where marijuana remains illegal.

The $2.78 billion in illegal marijuana found in Southern Oregon raids dwarfs the nearly $1.2 billion in legal marijuana sold at shops in the entire state in 2021, the Mail Tribune investigation found.

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