San Luis Obispo County places temporary ban on hemp production

Jun 21, 2019

In an about-face vote from exactly one year ago, San Luis Obispo County officials enacted a temporary ban this week on new industrial hemp production. The ban will be in effect for at least 45 days.

Until the urgency moratorium is lifted, farmers who have not completed the application process will not be able to plant legally and will miss out on this growing season. The county’s board of supervisors has the ability to extend the ban for up to two years while it prepares a permanent ordinance that will either prohibit hemp production or regulate where it can occur.

For hours on Tuesday, the board listened to farmers planning to grow hemp crops. Many of these farmers said they had already made investments and the decision to ban new hemp grows would be devastating to them financially.

The vote was four to one in favor of the urgency moratorium. Supervisor Bruce Gibson was the only one in opposition.

Brent Burchett, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau, said the decision was unfair, and a missed opportunity for the county.

“What a terrible way to make government policy,” Burchett said. “Make no mistake about it, a vote in favor of this urgency ordinance is a ban on industrial help in this county for at least one year. There’s nothing that we don’t know today that we’ll know 45 days from now.”

One of the rationales given for voting in favor of the moratorium was concern growers would be cultivating for CBD—or cannabidiol, the compound in cannabis used for medical purposes— and not fiber. Supervisor Lynn Compton said she received several complaints from her district about odor. According to a few members of the board, hemp produced for CBD may have odor similar to cannabis and is similar in appearance to cannabis.

Besides farmers speaking at this week’s hearing, several people spoke during public comment about how CBD has helped them with ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and arthritis.

Hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant. Although part of the same species—cannabis sativa—it’s different than marijuana in that industrial hemp can’t contain more than .03 percent of THC, the compound that causes psychotropic effects. Since the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, the federal government has not differentiated hemp from its cannabis family, and the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, signed into law by President Nixon, outlawed the entire species.

But hemp is one of the fastest growing plants and can be used to make hundreds of commercial products like building materials, textiles, biofuel, animal feed, paper and biodegradable plastics.

This week’s county-wide ban comes just six months after growing hemp crops was legalized—with restrictions—in the federal Farm Bill. Local hemp farmer Frank Brown brought a hemp plant up to the podium during public comment, and handed it to the supervisors as he spoke.

“Take a whiff,” Brown said. “Go ahead, you’re not going to smell anything.”

Brown said he felt an urgency ordinance would only hurt the county.

“We’ve amended soils, built infrastructure, bought equipment,” Brown said. “These are major capital investments that have been made, and we’ve done that with a reasonable expectation that we’d have several years of farming that would be available for us to recover those investment costs.”

Supervisors in favor of the moritarium cited concerns like potential cross-pollination with other cannabis plants, a lack of acreage limitations and setback requirements for crop production, that crop production could be grown in all county designated land use categories, and the potential for delayed enforcement of illegal cannabis.

Although he eventually voted in favor of the temporary ban, Supervisor Adam Hill said he was very conflicted about his decision.

“I don’t want to see us get in the way of an industry that I think could be an important part of our economy,” Hill said.

Several of the farmers who spoke at the hearing proposed the idea of an advisory committee in place of the ordinance. County resident Michael Bankston said he felt the ordinance was an attack on farmers.

“They are going to create an issue for the people who want to farm, and it’s denying them to right to farm,” Bankston said. “It’s just against farming all together.”

Supervisor Lynn Compton said the moratorium is not a permanent ban.

“What we’re deciding today is to take a 45-day, I guess, holding-our-breath period, to get some reasonable regulations in place before we open it completely up,” Compton said.