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SLO County won't ban industrial hemp after Board of Supervisors hears from growers

A hemp plant is pollinated at Unique Botanicals in Springfield, Ore.
A hemp plant is pollinated at Unique Botanicals in Springfield, Ore. Associated Press

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided on Tuesday against pursuing an urgency ordinance banning industrial hemp production after hearing comments from a parade of local growers.

Instead, the board will take a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of updated state laws on the industry.

As of now, the county does not have an ordinance or regulations regarding hemp, and state laws only allow public and private research institutions and licensed cannabis growers to cultivate the plant. Hemp grown for commercial and personal uses is prohibited.

Fans of hemp say the plant offers a wealth of valuable uses, from clothing to medicinal oils to food products.

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Cal Poly students Conor Stephen and Ted Fitzgerald are working to get a pilot program started at the university to conduct research on industrial hemp.

County staff had proposed an ordinance that would formally ban the growing of industrial hemp, including plants grown in established agricultural research institutions, with the exception of hemp cultivated by licensed cannabis growers, universities including Cal Poly, public entities on public lands, and private entities affiliated with public entities so long as they followed certain restrictions.

After three hours of public comments and deliberation, however, the board decided not to act on the proposed moratorium, one reason being that it is not a pressing problem at this time.

"I am not going to support an urgency ordinance that has no urgency," Supervisor Adam Hill said.

Supervisor Lynn Compton shared similar sentiments, saying she did not want to use the term "urgency ordinance" lightly because, for her, it should be reserved for a life-or-death situation.

Hill said his decision came after consideration that the state did not have an established set of rules concerning the hemp industry.

On that point, the county's assistant administrative officer, Guy Savage, said California should have a set of guidelines for the hemp industry by the end of the year, but deliberation over the topic has been slow-moving.

Under Senate Bill No. 94, hemp is registered as an agricultural product entirely separate from cannabis, according to California Hemp Foundation representative Wayne Richmond, who was present at the hearing.

The timing of the proposed ordinance would have greatly affected farmers as this year's planting season begins soon.

"We are about ready to plant, and you are about to pull the rug out from under us," Richmond said.

The ordinance was proposed by county staff in hopes of allowing researchers to continue to grow their product while preventing others who might want to use using hemp as a cover for marijuana.

As of now, the Department of Planning and Building's Code Enforcement Section, which enforces land-use laws including those covering cannabis cultivation, is investigating one reported incident of a hemp grower actually growing cannabis instead. The investigation is still in progress.

Many hemp growers in the area who are cultivating the plant for research purposes spoke out against the notion that hemp is just a front for growing marijuana. They emphasized that hemp and cannabis, although similar crops, produce different products and are completely separate industries.

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The inability or difficulty to test for THC in hemp cultivation poses a challenge for code enforcement officers. However, analytical lab owner and operator Forrest Richmond said that he has run the test many times and that it is fairly easy and cost-efficient to tell the difference between hemp and THC.

More than 20 growers stepped up to the podium to share their knowledge of the hemp industry, claiming its versatile use had untapped economic potential.

In the end, the supervisors agreed, saying it would be best to wait until the state has passed updated laws before they take further action on the hemp industry.

District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson said he had walked into the meeting expecting to vote for the ordinance but ultimately decided otherwise.

"Testimonies and discussion here today changed my mind," Gibson said.

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