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The Promise & Perils of Hemp

Tony Linegar, the former Mendocino Agricultural Commissioner, is in his eighth year as Sonoma County Ag Commissioner. Not surprisingly, he’s not fading quietly into the sunset, not with yet another controversial crop on the horizon.

“Solving the challenge of how hemp can fit into the agricultural landscape will be a balancing act with many opposing interests,” he says. “It’s a worthy cause if it creates opportunity for local farmers. Hopefully we can come out of the process with the opportunity intact!”

Linegar has a tough row to hoe. He knows he does, and knows, too, that his tough row goes with the territory. As the Ag Commissioner, he aims to protect and to preserve farming and ranching, including the cultivation of grapes, apples, pears, and all kinds of vegetables. 

Diverse ag is one of his mantras. His job is increasingly difficult in a county like many others that, more and more every year, is paved over. Rich soils are buried beneath roads, housing developments and shopping malls. 

Now, with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Trump signed into law last December, there’s the opportunity to grow a crop here that human beings have been growing for thousands of years, and has been used for food, clothing and building materials, too. 

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it. Their contemporary, Thomas Paine, who helped jump-start the American Revolution, saw hemp growing wild in the Thirteen Colonies and concluded that it would ensure that Americans would always be free, and never under a foreign domination.

“Hemp is an amazing plant botanically speaking,” Linegar says. “Like soy, its seed contains a complete protein.” He explains that hemp, cannabis’s kissing cousin, has many uses, “for clothing and textiles, and that it also offers the possibility to create new kinds of plastics that would be biodegradable, as well as new building materials like hempcrete.”

In fact, hemp might help to save an overheated planet.

What it won’t do, is enable anyone to get high, no matter how much is ingested, though lawmakers have long been leery about it because it grows and looks like cannabis, which is illegal by federal law. 

Hemp was prohibited in 1937, at the same time that cannabis was prohibited. Ever since then, it has been guilty by association.

Hemp belongs to the cannabis family, though unlike the commercial cannabis that’s cultivated in Sonoma County, and in all 50 California counties, it’s not rich in THC, the psychoactive ingredient that has made the cannabis plant extremely valuable. 

Hemp does have CBD, which seems to have medicinal benefits. Local dispensaries carry CBD tinctures and rubs; insomniacs use it for sleep, the anxious use it to relieve anxiety.

“I’ve taken a deep dive into the hemp world,” Linegar says. “I know that the only way that you can distinguish a field of hemp grown for CBD from a field of cannabis with THC, is to take samples of the female plants from both, bring them to a laboratory and have them tested.” 

Linegar added that if it’s commercial hemp, it can’t have more than .3% THC, hardly dangerous.

To date, 13 California counties have enacted moratoriums on hemp. Linegar would like Sonoma to do the same. Indeed, he wants the county to approve an urgency ordinance enacting a moratorium on hemp.

It’s not that Linegar is dead set against the cultivation of commercial hemp. As the Ag Commissioner, he would like hemp to join the list of crops that are grown and harvested here, in part because because hemp would bring diversity to fields and farms. It would also pay well. 

If ag is to survive in Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt, it will have to have products that bring a big financial return per acre. Hemp could be one of them.

“In Colorado an acre of hemp produced for CBD brings in about $60,000 per acre,” Linegar says. “An acre here of the most highly sought after grapes might bring in five to six tons an acre and sell for $5,000 a ton, at the high end. You do the math.”

Not surprisingly, some financially strapped farmers are chomping at the bit.

“We have already had numerous inquiries at the Department of Agriculture from conventional farmers who want to grow hemp,” Linegar says.

He has not given anyone a green light. Curiously, or perhaps not, while he wants agriculture to survive and thrive in Sonoma, he isn’t sure that allowing farmers to grow hemp right now is the best way to ensure its commercial success.

Hemp offers a bit of a “conundrum,” to borrow the term that Lingear uses to describe the situation.

“There are pros and cons on all sides,” he says.

As Linegar sees it, there are at least three good reasons to place a moratorium on hemp.

First, because Sacramento has not yet issued final regulations about hemp cultivation, though they are expected soon.

“We don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he says. Second, there seems to be a loophole in state law that allows

for the cultivation of hemp for research purposes without registering with a county agricultural commissioner or be tested for THC.

“That loophole could be exploited,” Linegar says. “It has been the impetus for most of the county moratoriums in effect in California.”

The exception could become the rule.

Third, male hemp plants have the potential to pollinate female Cannabis plants. That pollination would produce seeds and make Cannabis a less valuable cash crop.

“Hemp pollen can move from 3 to 30 miles,” Linegar explains. “In Oregon, the proximity of hemp to Cannabis is already a problem. If we have both crops here, hemp farmers growing male plants would have to be at a safe distance from female Cannabis plants. We don't want incompatible land use.”

He added, “first and foremost we owe considerations to people who have been diligently pursuing legal status by complying with the rigorous local and state regulations for licensing. Having passed an ordinance that allows for Cannabis cultivation in late 2016, I believe the county has an obligation to protect their interests.”

In some ways, Linegar would like Sonoma County to stay away from rules and regulations about hemp, and to wait until Sacramento creates boundaries. As he knows all too well, opening up the issue of regulating hemp cultivation might mean that the state environmental law will require that the county “go down the same rabbit hole that it went down with Cannabis.”

That could be disastrous. Linegar expects that some of the same people in Sonoma County and elsewhere, who have opposed Cannabis, would also oppose hemp. For one thing, it would smell. For another, if mistaken for Cannabis, it could present similar concerns around public safety. 

“I am prepared to tell the supervisors that we have to maintain the ability of Sonoma County farmers to go on farming,” Linegar says. “I understand that Cannabis is prohibited in areas zoned RR and AR. I can accept that, but places that are zoned LIA, LEA and DA, have to be maintained and defended for farming and ranching. I draw the line there. The primary use for that land is agricultural, not residential.”

He adds, “We have had a huge influx of people from urban areas who don’t understand agriculture and don’t appreciate or respect that they are moving into areas zoned for agriculture. We can’t cow-tow to them.”

Linegar keeps coming back to the topic of CBD. Indeed, he wonders what consumer products with CBD the FDA will allow on the marketplace. “Of course,” he says, “The horse is already out of the stable.”

He points out that, “There are all kinds of CBD products out there already that consumers purchase and use. Enforcing restraints has been non existent.”

Linegar would like California to compete with Kentucky, which is a major producer of hemp now that the tobacco industry has, to a large extent, tanked. Farmers there are freaked.

“Mitch McConnell was the tip of the spear for incorporating hemp into the 2018 Farm Bill,” Linegar says.

He isn’t boastful about his politicking abilities, but he might provide the tip of the spear here. After all, he likes a good fight. The cultivation of hemp, he hopes, might reopen, over time, the whole issue of cannabis and persuade those who have been opposed to it to reconsider their opposition.

“Unfortunately there’s guilt by association,” he says. “The way Cannabis has been over regulated has the ability to color the way hemp is regulated and that would not be in the best interests of our farmers.”

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.)

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