Now that it is legal at a federal level to grow hemp with the passage of a federal farm bill last year, California and its counties are struggling to write rules regulating production.
But one of the most pressing issues could be keeping fields that grow hemp, a type of cannabis, separate from stands of marijuana, also cannabis and known for its mind-altering qualities unlike hemp.
Last month the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted to implement a temporary moratorium on hemp cultivation, citing among other issues concerns about the cross pollination with marijuana, cannabis plants containing the psychoactive compound THC.
Sonoma County has similar concerns, according to county agricultural commissioner Tony Linegar.
Under federal law, farmers can grow hemp as long as the plants contains less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient that creates the “high” associated with the cannabis plant. Hemp typically contains only trace amounts of the chemical. It can be harvested for fiber for clothing but is increasingly prized for its cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which is touted as having a variety of health benefits including stress and pain relief, to name a few. Farming for the oil rather than the fibrous stalks also requires less acreage, Linegar said, noting that could be a plus in Sonoma County given the expensive price of real estate and potential competition with the wine industry.
With the growing demand for CBD, Linegar also said hemp seeds could become more valuable and that Sonoma County could become a prime producer of approved, low THC strains.
The ordinance adopted by Mendocino County also noted that the state had not yet approved seed sources for hemp and said unregulated seeds could carry disease.
CBD is of dubious legality, however, according to Linegar, who noted the state health department has prohibited the chemical from being added to food products despite it being widely available.
Issues of cross pollination occur because “cannabis is what we call a dioecious plant,” Linegar said, meaning that male and female features, seeds and flowers, occur on different plants instead of the same one.
Female marijuana plants produce flowers which farmers grow for their THC content, but if male hemp plants, which are largely grown for their fibers, are planted too close to female plants, the hemp can pollinate the female marijuana plant. That can cause them to seed and impact their yield and THC content through the sharing of genetic information, Linegar said.
“If they’re near a [hemp] farm that is producing male plants, particularly farms producing plants for fiber, that really devalues the bud,” he said, referring to the marijuana flowers.
The issue could also arise between male and female hemp plants as well, according to Erica Stark, executive director of the nonprofit National Hemp Association, a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group.
“The cross-pollination issue affects the hemp industry more so in the cross pollination between fiber and grain varietal of hemp and CBD varietals of hemp,” Stark said. CBD varietals are female and if planted too closely to plants prized for their fiber could be pollinated and “would greatly reduce the value and the yield and the overall profitability,” she added.
Regulations for testing and permitting are currently under consideration at the state and county level and would have to include specifics on how far hemp and marijuana plants could be from one another, said Linegar.