Law enforcement agencies could assist Oregon farm regulators with inspections of hemp crops under a bill that’s intended to thwart illegal marijuana operations.

Sheriffs from Jackson and Josephine counties in Southern Oregon are urging lawmakers to pass House Bill 2296, which would allow their agencies to cooperate with the Oregon Department of Agriculture on hemp inspections.

“Our illegal marijuana enforcement team has found that the ODA licensing has created a shield for those that are growing marijuana,” said Sheriff Nathan Sickler of Jackson County during a recent legislative hearing.

Hemp contains less than 0.3% of the psychoactive compound THC, but it’s indistinguishable in appearance from mind-altering marijuana, a related cannabis plant.

Industrial hemp is regulated by ODA while marijuana is overseen by the state’s Liquor Control Commission for recreational purposes and the state’s Health Authority for medical uses.

Marijuana was legalized in Oregon but remains illegal under federal law, while hemp can be lawfully produced nationally.

Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, the bill’s sponsor, said there’s too little verification that cannabis plants grown under industrial hemp licenses are not actually black market marijuana.

“The result of this lack of enforcement has been mass migration of licensed cannabis producers to the hemp system,” Morgan said, adding that marijuana growers with hemp licenses can harvest and ship their crops with little accountability.

Inspectors from ODA are “drinking from a fire hose,” unable to keep up with the workload of overseeing hemp operations, said Sheriff Dave Daniel of Josephine County.

Local deputies can easily check whether a cannabis crop is hemp or marijuana with a one-hour test, but often cannot obtain probable cause for search warrants to analyze suspect crops, he said.

“What was once a clandestine industry is now being conducted in plain sight,” Daniel said. “The hemp industry overseen by ODA is being manipulated and is free from law enforcement intervention even when we believe hemp is actually marijuana.”

Illegal marijuana production has attracted “organized crime syndicates from the East Coast” and other countries to Southern Oregon, where it’s associated with other violent and non-violent crimes, he said.

Half of the eight homicides committed in Josephine County in 2020 were directly related to black market marijuana cultivation, Daniel said. Of the 41 illegal marijuana operations raided by law enforcement in the county last year, three were operating under the guise of hemp farms.

Rep. Morgan, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged the proposal has raised legal questions and she has agreed to participate in a work group to refine HB 2296. However, she said that Southern Oregon can’t wait years for ODA regulators to ramp up enforcement on their own.

“We can’t allow that in our area for community safety,” she said. “We need something now.”

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee will also be evaluating several other hemp-related proposals during the 2021 legislative session, such as exempting hemp grown for research purposes from destruction if it contains excess THC levels.

Proponents of House Bill 2671 claim the exemption is necessary to avoid wasting valuable research when stressors cause hemp crops to edge above the legal threshold of 0.3% THC.

Researchers cannot collect samples from “hot” hemp plants and draw conclusions from their studies, which could be changed with a revision to the law or a new hemp research license, said Jeff Newgard, a lobbyist for the Scotts-Miracle Gro company.

“These obstacles make a researcher’s job a guessing game,” he said.

Scotts Miracle-Gro has invested about $2 million on a hemp facility in Gervais, Ore., to better understand the plant’s needs, said Michael Faust, a company representative.

Without analyzing hemp crops containing more than 0.3% THC, the company can’t study what genetic or external factors caused the problem, said Danielle Posch, senior research specialist with the company.

“Our focus is entirely on plant research,” she said. “We do not grow hemp for production and none of the material grown on-site is commercialized. Our hemp plants are destroyed following the completion of our research projects.”

A couple hemp bills have been considered by the Legislature before, such as House Bill 2284 — which would establish a crop commission to raise money for hemp research and promotions — and House Bill 2281, which would align Oregon’s hemp statutes with federal laws and regulations.

Similar proposals gained traction but died before they could be voted on due to walk-outs over climate bills, which ended previous legislative sessions in 2019 and 2020.

“For those of us who are sick of the subject, like I am, I am hoping it will be the last of it,” said Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, the committee’s chair.

– Capital Press