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Moratorium on new hemp licenses coming to Jackson County

Mail Tribune/File photo A new state law allows counties to seek a ban on new hemp licenses.
Applications from Jan. 1 forward will be denied

Jackson County commissioners unanimously declared a local state of emergency about cannabis Thursday, paving the way for a moratorium on new hemp licenses in the county.

The county will notify the state of the declaration. A new Oregon law requires the state to deny applications for new hemp licenses in counties that declare a cannabis emergency.

Josephine County commissioners declared a state of emergency over cannabis Wednesday.

Last year, both counties declared cannabis emergencies, but commissioners had to do it again by March 15 to trigger the new state law.

The moratorium on new hemp licenses is retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year. It extends to Dec. 31, or the end of the growing season for industrial hemp as determined by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, whichever comes later, said Jackson County Senior Deputy Administrator Harvey Bragg.

“We need to kind of get a time-out here so we can catch up,” Bragg said.

An explosion of hemp and marijuana grows in Southern Oregon has overwhelmed regulatory agencies and law enforcement.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is tasked with regulating hemp, which Congress legalized nationwide in 2018. Hemp has very low levels of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets users high.

Marijuana remains illegal federally, although it’s legal in Oregon if growers comply with a long list of state regulations. Many people pretending to grow hemp are actually growing high-THC marijuana. With the Oregon legal marijuana market saturated, they often sell the marijuana for more money in states where it remains illegal.

Last year, state inspectors found 53% of licensed hemp grows they tested in Jackson and Josephine counties were growing marijuana under the guise of hemp. Hemp and marijuana look alike, but testing THC levels allows inspectors to tell them apart.

An unknown number of people are growing marijuana illegally without any hemp or marijuana licenses or permits at all.

Southern Oregon law enforcement agencies found a slew of problems at illegal marijuana grows they busted in 2021, including workers living in squalid conditions, water theft in a region hard-hit by drought, improper use of pesticides and other chemicals, garbage, electrical wiring hazards and evidence of illegal drug trafficking.

Agencies believe organized criminal networks, including foreign drug cartels, are financially backing many of the illegal grows.

A Mail Tribune investigation revealed law enforcement agencies in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Douglas counties found illegal marijuana with an estimated black market value of at least $2.78 billion in 2021.

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

The Oregon Legislature approved Senate Bill 1564, which allows the hemp license moratoriums, in a short session that wrapped up March 4. Licensed growers already participating in the legal system will be allowed to continue.

The bill had bipartisan support, including from Jackson County Democrats Sen. Jeff Golden and Rep. Pam Marsh and Josephine County Republicans Rep. Lily Morgan and Rep. Duane Stark.

Many in the hemp industry opposed the bill, which at first had more sweeping limits on new hemp licenses. Opponents said the bill targets hemp growers who want to grow legally.

Hemp fiber can be used for products such as clothes and rope, while cannabidiol, or CBD, in hemp is used in a variety of medicinal products.

Other bills that passed to tackle problems related to marijuana include aid to organizations that help exploited workers and a ban on hauling water to unlicensed or unregistered grows.

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