With thousands of acres to regulate and stacks of applications to approve, officials are playing catch-up with Oregon’s booming hemp industry.
Four staff members within the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s hemp program oversee more than 63,000 acres and nearly 2,000 registered growers, according to the latest count. None of the staff is dedicated to in-field inspections.
Gary McAninch, who manages the state’s hemp regulation for the Department, says he’s recruited three additional short-term staff members from within the Agriculture department to pore over about 1,200 new applications from growers and processors. “We’re right in the middle of processing just an avalanche of hemp registration applications,” McAninch told Cannabis Wire. “It’s a long, drawn-out process.”
When Oregon began its hemp pilot program in 2015, there were thirteen growers on 105 acres. Five years later, it’s one of the most plentiful crops in the state, even surpassing Oregon’s 45,000 acres of potatoes. But despite the crunch, McAninch says he’s confident his office will get through applications before the growing season starts in late spring. Currently, McAninch manages hemp alongside the department’s garden nursery and Christmas tree program.
The hemp program was expecting a makeover and to add a few more helping hands before the legislative session ended abruptly on March 5.
House Bill 4072 would have created the Oregon State Hemp Program. At the request of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the legislation would have provided more staff, including two in-field inspectors, a new program manager position, and an administrative position.
But after Republican lawmakers spent more than a week away from the capital to protest an unrelated cap-and-trade bill, Democratic leadership decided to adjourn the session three days before the constitutional deadline. That leaves HB 4072 and more than 250 other bills to die unless Governor Kate Brown convenes a special session.
Oregon’s hemp pilot program was created in accordance with the 2014 Farm Bill rules. It will continue to operate under those rules through this season. But with federal hemp legalization under the 2018 Farm Bill, the state will need to get a new plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture by October 31st. If it doesn’t, the crop could fall under federal jurisdiction in November. HB 4072 was the state’s effort to align its rules with USDA guidelines. (As Cannabis Wire has reported, state agriculture departments are scrambling to comply with the new rules.)
Despite the explosive growth of the hemp industry in Oregon, at least one state senator has questioned why more staff to oversee it is necessary. At an interim legislative meeting on January 13 regarding the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s request for more staff, state Senator Fred Girod, a Republican, wondered why the state needed a hemp regulation program at all. “When we first brought this on it was extremely controversial, and so that’s why we had the registration fees and the enforcement. But now, all of a sudden, we’re at 63,000 acres when we started at 100 acres. So, are we getting a lot of complaints?” Girod asked Lauren Henderson, an assistant director in the Agriculture Department. “And if not, the question is do we really need this program? It just seems to be a common crop now.”
Henderson responded that more staff is necessary for Oregon’s state hemp plan. He also said that more staff is needed because of complaints the agency gets about the hemp industry—chiefly for growers’ water use and their burning of plastics.
Girod eventually voted to approve the additional staff request. It was included in HB 4072.
The fight for hemp oversight is reminiscent of Oregon’s struggle with its other cannabis industry, which Cannabis Wire detailed in in-depth feature.
An audit from the Secretary of State’s office in 2018 blasted the Oregon Liquor Control Commission—which regulates adult use cannabis—for lacking staff to make even occasional field inspections. At the time, the commission had approved 875 applications for growers alone and had eighteen inspectors.
Both industries are also driving up water use complaints. Racquel Rancier, a policy manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, says her agency is seeing an increased workload because of hemp. “I think the biggest challenge is that there has been a rush into these industries without having a full understanding of Oregon water law,” Rancier says.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture request for more staff included a temporary assistant water master at the Water Resources Department devoted to hemp complaints.
Rancier notes the big difference between the two industries is that adult-use grows tend to be small, whereas hemp can be planted over tens of acres and put more demand on already limited sources of water.
With the regular session over, the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to add staff this year hinges on a special session. If that doesn’t happen, hemp regulators could be set back even further.
“We’re always behind on staffing because we just can’t go out and hire people,” McAninch says. “We have to have authority to hire. So when the industry has this big lurch forward with a large number of acreage or registrants, then we have to react afterwards to try to get staff.”