Editor's note: The following is an opinion column from our occasional columnist Casey O'Neill. If you'd like to take Mendocino County's hemp survey follow this link.
As a farmer born and raised in Mendocino County, I care about our communities and want to see us thrive. As an advocate for sensible cannabis regulation, I have often been frustrated by the complicated and expensive process that we have seen unfold. Many of the small farmers who participated in medicinal cannabis production during the past decades are now locked out of the new process, and this is of grave concern to the economic well-being of our area.
With the passage of the federal Farm Bill by Congress, hemp is roaring back into the national consciousness, meaning that it is worthwhile for farmers, and everyone, in Mendocino to take a close look at both the opportunity and the potential drawbacks to local hemp cultivation. Hemp is being produced for CBD content, which could provide an avenue for many of the traditional medicinal growers in our county, but there are also concerns around “pollen drift” and the grey nature of hemp regulations via different federal agencies (USDA for production, FDA for regulation of final products).
So now Mendo needs to decide: are we going to produce hemp in tandem with cannabis? or specialize in one? or is there another solution?
Mendocino County has put in place a 45 day moratorium on hemp planting while staff looks at the potential impacts. There are many different opinions about what should happen locally around hemp; and the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance Policy Committee is split on the issue and is not taking a position at this time. There remains a need for robust conversation around hemp and its potential for Mendocino County. This article is an attempt to stimulate that discussion, and I would love to see responses and further dialogue. (Comment below, or on Facebook)
As historical background, hemp was produced widely in the U.S. for food, fiber, fuel and medicine until prohibition was phased in during the 1930’s. Hemp rope was in huge demand by U.S. Armed Forces (especially the Navy) but as synthetic rope production began to ramp up, large corporations like Dupont and Dow Chemical lobbied against it, as did the paper industry led by William Randolph Hearst. The history of cannabis prohibition is a sordid affair laced with dirty lobbying, racism and outright lies.
One result of this is that the cannabis plant has been divided into categories of hemp and psychoactive varietals based on the amount of THC found in the plant. Any plant with more than .3% THC does not qualify as hemp and is heavily regulated or prohibited. But it’s important to note that this classification is a human-invented division within the one single plant species.
Hemp can be grown for food, fiber, fuel or medicine. The biggest issue cited with hemp production in an area that is known for psychoactive cannabis production, is the potential for cross-pollination with cannabis crops; because psychoactive varietals are grown as sinsemilla (from the Spanish for “without seed”), pollen drift from hemp farms could pose a catastrophic detriment to cannabis producers. Drift is common with fiber crops because both male and female plants produce the same fibers. Drift is inherent to hemp seed production for food because pollination must occur in order to make the seed.
When we talk about hemp for cannabinoid production, a different scenario emerges in terms of pollen drift. Hemp production to produce the cannabinoid CBD is a dominant force right now, and the female plants produce far higher volumes of CBD than do male plants. The bottom line is that for CBD hemp producers, male plants aren’t desirable except for breeding, just like with more psychoactive varieties of the plant.
There are many medicine makers here in Mendocino who produce whole-plant medicine that would qualify as hemp because of the low amounts of THC (less than .3%) in the high-CBD varietals that have been bred here over the last decade. Many of these same medicine makers are locked out of the regulated cannabis market because of the massive costs and heavy regulatory burden.
There remains a significant grey area in the sale of hemp-based CBD, and the regulations are shifting. CBD hemp can be found in many local stores, often produced by large, industrial-ag conglomerates. These crops are often contaminated with pesticides and contain low-quality cannabinoids. Because hemp is generally produced on industrial scale, the question remains “is it possible for CBD hemp to be an avenue for small producers”?
As we are seeing with other forms of herbal medicine production, there is a market niche for high-quality products grown with good practices and harvested, dried and cured to produce quality products. The Mendocino Herb Guild is doing amazing work in building coalition around herbal medicine and working towards a future of localized herbal medicine production. There could be a strong niche for local CBD production that could accent the Mendocino reputation for quality, small-batch products. I don’t know whether or not this idea is possible, but I think it bears looking into.
Casey O’Neill co-operates HappyDay Farms, a DemPure Certified vegetable and cannabis farm in Mendocino County. You can find his radio show on podcast at HappyDay Farms Farm and Reefer Report on iTunes or Soundcloud. HappyDay Farms' website: www.happydayfarmscsa.com