Sonoma County bans hemp cultivation, citing need for tighter regulation

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday narrowly approved an immediate ban on the cultivation of hemp, a move aimed at preventing the proliferation of a minimally regulated crop, a close relative of marijuana that lacks the psychoactive punch but can be far more profitable than wine grapes.

The measure passed on a ?4-1 vote, with Board Chairman David Rabbitt opposed and four votes needed to put the ban in place before state registration of hemp growers starts in about two weeks.

That state oversight it expects carries minimal restrictions on cultivation of a plant that looks and smells just like pot.

Without a local prohibition in place, “you are voting for cannabis odor to be in your district,” Supervisor James Gore warned his colleagues, urging support for the hemp ban. “You’re gonna drive down 101 and see big old things that look like cannabis.”

Rabbitt agreed that rural residents would mount the same protest over hemp as they have in recent years over marijuana, pushing the supervisors to restrict most pot cultivation to lots of at least 10 acres and prohibit it in rural neighborhoods.

But, in a reflection of the board’s agonized and protracted debate, Rabbitt said he was unwilling to place regulations on a legitimate agricultural crop.

“That is a hard bridge for me to cross,” he said. “I’m going to be a no vote on the moratorium.”

Shortly afterward, Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she, too, was leaning toward a no vote, which would have doomed the urgency measure needed to make the ban effective immediately.

Zane later said she would “grudgingly” vote for the ban.

Gore and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who form the board’s committee on cannabis, recommended the moratorium. Hopkins said the matter “calls for a pause to think this through.”

“There is no easy, right answer to this,” Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar told the board, adding that he had wrestled with the issue before backing the ban.

If state registration of hemp growers starts, as expected, on April 14, any county without a moratorium on the books would be obliged to accept them, Linegar said.

“The state is really pushing this,” he said. “This is definitely the cart before the horse.”

State rules will deal only with some technical details of hemp cultivation, with no limits on crop size, location or odor control provisions, Linegar said.

The ban approved by the board will expire on April 30, 2020, when the county can see how the hemp industry is shaping up and decide whether it wants more stringent regulation.

But Linegar also said he lacks sufficient staffing to implement a hemp program by that date, leaving open the question of whether the upcoming county budget would give him the needed resources.

At least 20 counties, including pot-rich Mendocino, have enacted hemp bans or are in the process of establishing them, he said.

Marijuana and hemp belong to the same species, but only pot contains significant amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound known as THC. Hemp products cannot legally be sold if they have a THC content higher than three-tenths of 1 percent.

The only way to distinguish hemp from marijuana is to test its THC content just before harvest.

The market for cannabidiol - a compound known as CBD found in both hemp and marijuana - is predicted to be worth $22 billion by 2022, Linegar said.

Hemp grown for CBD is grossing $60,000 an acre in Oregon, compared with an average of just less than $10,000 an acre for wine grapes in Sonoma County’s 2017 crop report, Linegar said in an interview.

But a critical drawback to hemp farming is that pollen from male plants can potentially spoil the CBD content in the flower of female plants, he said. People growing hemp for CBD raise only female plants to prevent cross-pollination.

Despite that concern, Linegar said hemp cultivation is “a very viable option for Sonoma County,” adding that his office gets several calls a day from people interested in planting it.

“Part of our mission is to protect and preserve agriculture,” he said.

The 2,000-member Sonoma County Farm Bureau said in a letter to the supervisors it was “adamantly opposed” to the moratorium, noting the 2018 federal farm bill authorized hemp cultivation.

Hemp “may be what keeps some of our longtime food-producing farmers in business” by adding a highly profitable crop to support lower-priced commodities such as vegetable and milk, said the letter signed by Jeff Carlton, the Farm Bureau president.

Given approval of a moratorium, Carlton said he hoped the organization could be involved in drafting any county regulations on hemp.

Alexa Wall, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, said the group representing local cannabis cultivators had taken no position on the hemp ban.

“We have to talk about it,” she said in an interview, noting some members are interested in growing hemp and others are not.

“Cross-pollination is absolutely the biggest concern for us,” she said.

Linegar sees little prospect for cultivation of male hemp plants in Sonoma County because of the high cost of land and the far higher return on producing CBD compared with hemp growth for seed or fiber.

Male and female hemp gardens could be kept far enough apart to minimize cross-pollination, or cultivation of females for CBD could be done indoors.

“It is doable,” Linegar said. “These uses could coexist,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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